Carole Owens: Anti-vaxx hysteria hard to eradicate


STOCKBRIDGE — The first vaccination developed was against smallpox. It was produced in 1798 by British doctor Edward Jenner. Smallpox was a dreaded disease: painful, disfiguring, and deadly. Therefore, the vaccine was welcomed, and Jenner acclaimed, right? Not exactly: the vaccine was rejected, and Jenner's image burned in effigy.

Critics of the vaccine took various positions. Religious organizations called the vaccine "un-Christian." Some feared side effects, and others doubted it would work. Some believed the vaccine itself would infect people and spread the disease. General discontent with the vaccine reflected general distrust in medicine, but that was the 18th century and times changed, right?

In the19th century, Massachusetts made taking the smallpox vaccination mandatory. Tension worsened as a result. At a town meeting in 1882, Lenox voted to close the schools to prevent spread of the disease rather than immunize the students. Elsewhere in Massachusetts, the New England Anti Compulsory Vaccination League was formed. The League believed mandatory vaccination violated their civil rights.

In the 20th century, a case brought in Massachusetts found its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Jacobson v. Massachusetts (1905) was the first case in which the Supreme Court upheld the authority of states to enforce compulsory vaccination laws. Nevertheless in 1913, the Anti Compulsory Vaccination League was still producing pamphlets on how to avoid mandatory vaccination.

While scholars described vaccination as one of the 10 most significant public health achievements; opposition to vaccination persisted. Focus shifted from smallpox to DPT (diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis).


The controversy over DPT immunization began after a television documentary, "Vaccination Roulette," that aired in 1982. It alleged there were adverse reactions to the vaccination. A book followed in 1991, "A Shot in the Dark," outlining potential risks. The response from the Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was strong but not entirely mitigating. The media storm prompted several lawsuits against vaccine manufacturers, but none were successful.

Next on the Anti-vaccination and immunization hit list was the vaccine for measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR). The fight had two prongs: opposition to the use of a preservative called thimerosal that contained mercury, and an accusation that a causal relationship existed between the vaccine and autism.

Research studies were conducted to assess the safety of the MMR vaccine, and none of them found a link between the vaccine and autism. Out of an abundance of caution, the use of thimerosal was dropped or decreased.

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It does not seem to matter what the studies report, or the experts say. Fear is more persuasive. Before the vaccine was developed in 1963, there was a measles outbreak of epidemic proportion every two to three years. After, the disease was all but eradicated.

"Herd immunity" means that when a sufficient percentage of the community has been vaccinated, the entire community is protected. That specific percentage disrupts the chain of infection; creating a firewall that stops the transmission of the disease. The CDC calculates with measles, that percentage is 83-94 percent. When 83-94 percent of a community is inoculated, it protects the entire community, and the CDC defines that as "eradicated."

When the percent of those vaccinated fall below that percentage the entire community is vulnerable.


We have now fallen below that point with measles, and we are approaching that point with polio. In 2013 there were 11 reported cases of measles in the U.S. In 2014 there were 644 cases. Hundreds of children were infected, and some died. The measles first appeared and then spread from Disneyland. Five years later, it is continuing its rampage.

It is the moment to ask: why? Why has the opposition to life saving inoculations remained relatively consistent since Edward Jenner introduced the smallpox vaccination?

Perhaps vaccinations seem frightening to some, but there are ways to study and establish facts. We also have mass communication to spread those facts. If the facts are presented to the people, why have emotions and rumors remained more persuasive?

We seem to have elevated opinion to the same level as fact. We seem to accept that everything is debatable although a fact should not be. We may love the story that nothing gets in the way of truth, but there may be consequences when it does. Right now, in the U.S. this resistance to truth may be killing our children.

A writer and historian, Carole Owens is a regular Eagle contributor.


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