smallpox

History of the anti-vaxxers: why do we keep the trend?

Anti-vaxxer-bashing is on the rise again — and for  good reason.

Thanks to an outbreak of measles at Disney Land, the movement has been trending on news sources, social media, and flooding Reddit. One image posted to Reddit in particular points out that anti-vaxxers (those who oppose vaccinations) aren’t new — the original poster states that the photo is condemning an anti-vaccination movement from 1940. We here at Whim posted a story about this very troubling subject in Oct. 2014, stating that “the original surgeon who brought [the anti-vaccination movement] to light has since been discredited and stripped of his medical license.”

But what is the history of this movement and why are we still seeing it in our headlines?

In England, widespread smallpox vaccination began in the early 1800s, thanks to Edward Jenner’s cowpox experiments. With such a new and worrisome practice for the general population, this vaccination certainly deserved speculation — something all new innovations should have to face. Their rationale for criticism included sanitary, religious, scientific, and political objections.

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“One image posted to Reddit in particular points out that anti-vaxxers (those who oppose vaccinations) aren’t new — the original poster states that the photo is condemning an anti-vaccination movement from 1940.”

The first organized groups against vaccinations began to pop up and eventually led to government policy making vaccinations compulsory, as well as the development of a commission designed to study vaccination.

The end of the 19th century saw the first organized anti-vaxxer movement in the US (The American anti-vaccinationists) fought in court to repeal vaccination laws in several states including California, Illinois, and Wisconsin.

In the 1970s, an outcry against vaccinations rang around the world in response to a report from the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children in London, which claimed that 36 children suffered neurological conditions following DTP immunizations. An independent study later confirmed that the vaccination was safe and helped to lead a pro-vaccination campaign.

And then there’s the dreaded Andrew Wakefield, the former surgeon and medical researcher who in 1998 published a paper claiming a link between the MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) vaccine and autism (and bowel disease). Later, the journal that published the article retracted it after Wakefield’s data was found to be fraudulent and largely influenced by a law board that had hired him to look for the link.

Since Wakefield’s now-discredited claim, several studies have been done to prove that there is no link between the MMR vaccine, autism, or bowel disease, and he has been stripped of his medical license. However, the research published by Wakefield is still used by anti-vaxxers and conspiracy band-wagoners alike, along with the presence of thimerosal (a mercury containing compound used as a preservative in vaccines).

Due to the volatile atmosphere surrounding vaccinations, in July of 1999, leading US public health, medical organizations, and vaccine manufacturers decided to significantly reduce or eliminate thimerosal from vaccines. Currently, the preservative is no longer used in most childhood vaccines, but is often present in yearly flu vaccines. Still, there is no scientific evidence to support that thimerosal poses any significant risk.

Despite this, celebrities like Jenny McCarthy  (a former Playboy model) and her advocacy group, Generation Rescue, as well as the organization Talk about Curing Autism (TACA) have spearheaded efforts to eliminate vaccinations, claiming they cause autism — just as the disgraced Wakefield claimed to have proven in his (say it with me) fraudulent article.

Although the world has had many government and independently sponsored studies done around the world, unfortunately, the public remains suspicious of vaccines. There’s much more evidence now to support vaccinations than was available 200 years ago, when Jenner first discovered a way to prevent hundreds of thousands of smallpox deaths. So why are we still having this argument?

Perhaps we’ve been spoiled by decades without devastating death tolls from many of the worst communicable diseases and begun taking our modern medicine a little too much for granted. Unfortunately, without harsh laws that prohibit some of the freedoms of choice we US citizens so highly value, there isn’t much to be done for those who choose not to vaccinate except to blast the media with the consequences of their actions.