Carole Owens: Unfortunately, vaccine skeptics have been around a while

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On July 1, 1785, prominent men of Berkshire County petitioned the commonwealth.

"To the Honorable members of the Senate and House of Representatives of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts The Subscribers [and] Inhabitants of the County of Berkshire humbly [show] that during the fall and winter the Smallpox was communicated repeatedly from the state of New York to [different] Inhabitants of said County, that many people dreading the malignant effects of that disorder did endeavor to avoid the evil by inoculation."

As we wait breathless for a vaccine against the novel coronavirus, in 1785 in Massachusetts, inoculation was illegal. The commonwealth contended the vaccine caused smallpox. Increased cases, contracted by whatever means, increased the danger to the public. The petitioners believed "the danger [of smallpox] was so great it was impossible to act in accordance with the law."

The penalties were grave: six months in jail, and fines from $1500 to $3000 (approximately $40,000 to $80,000 today). The law, Berkshire petitioners argued, was impossible to enforce because "it would be extremely difficult if not absolutely impossible to discriminate between smallpox contracted naturally or through inoculation [and] those who chose inoculation acted only to protect themselves and not to harm others." The petitioners won; no Berkshire citizen paid the penalty. Why? Reason returns when extreme danger passes until then panic rules.

Contagion is the communication of a disease from one person to another, epidemic the widespread communication, and pandemic is worldwide communication. Contagion, epidemic, pandemic — three words that cause fear. In 1785, there were only two ways to fight Smallpox — isolation and inoculation — and only one was legal. Nevertheless, people wanted to be inoculated. They told themselves the disease from inoculation was less severe and less deadly than the naturally contracted disease. They were wrong, but in panic, they clutched at any remedy.

In 1798, 13 years after Massachusetts threatened to imprison inoculators, and 75 years after the first case appeared in Boston, a safe and effective vaccine was developed by Dr. Edward Jenner. No matter how fervent the wish for a quick solution, science could not be rushed.

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Did a line form to be vaccinated? No — many refused to be vaccinated. They disbelieved the doctors and feared the vaccine as much as the disease. Due to public pressure, the new vaccination was outlawed. However, in 1802, Massachusetts was the first state to endorse the vaccination. In 1855, Massachusetts was the first state to mandate Smallpox vaccination for all school children. What followed the government mandate was public outcry.

Leaders of the backlash asserted that doctors were mistaken or lying. They claimed they had secret documents exposing the lies. They presented their own doctors who swore the vaccine was harmful. Lawyers said mandating a vaccination was unconstitutional, and politicians said science was the bunk.

It was 10 years before the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the law mandating vaccination. The medical community heralded the decision saying mandatory vaccination eradicated a deadly and debilitating disease. Those opposed were not convinced.

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What will happen today? What does history teach us? The public injected the unapproved vaccine and eschewed the approved one. It appeared they were not rejecting vaccines but denying science.

Two years ago, an alarmed New York Academy of Science (NYAS) hosted an event about science denial. "Public debate about settled issues [like climate change and vaccinations] is largely due to science denial." There are not two sides to the issues, there are "scientific facts, established after rigorous testing and peer-review" and lies or unsupported assertion. One should be disseminated; the other should not. However, " social media provides an express lane for misinformation."

Science denial is not new. In the 19th century there was an explosion of scientific research that challenged long-held beliefs. Denial of the new was commonplace.

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In 1846, at Massachusetts General Hospital, a dentist, Dr. William T. Morton demonstrated the first use of ether during surgery. It was rejected because doctors believed pain was necessary to the healing process. A year later, Hungarian physician Ignaz Semmelweis lowered the death rate in his hospital by ordering doctors to wash their hands. Other hospitals refused to order hand-washing because they believed the miasma theory — invisible poisonous gases caused disease not germs. At Lenox town meeting, they voted to close the schools rather than vaccinate the children. Across the globe, people died unnecessarily.

The arguments never change. The deep desire for a quick fix in 1785 sounds similar to some of the president's suggestions. The same allegations of "secret documents," dishonest doctors and assaults on civil liberties used in 1798 are used today against masks and in an anti-vaccine film, "Plandemic."

We wait breathless for a safe vaccine, but to eradicate the disease, we must achieve herd immunity. That is, a high enough percentage of the population must achieve immunity by contracting and surviving the disease or by being vaccinated. Will we achieve herd immunity or will those who politicize health, deny science, and spread misinformation win?

John Adams wrote that "facts are stubborn things, and our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion cannot alter facts and evidence."

One can only hope Adams was right, because facts save lives.

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


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