Transatlantic Antivaccination Campaigns: A Brief History

Samantha Allen Wright // “Will you get the new COVID-19 vaccine? Aren’t you worried about it?”

As an enthusiastic supporter of vaccinations (I’m first in line for my university’s yearly flu shot drive), I get many questions from family, friends, and students on my thoughts about a potential COVID-19 vaccine. I answer these questions by explaining how vaccines are made, how they work, and how vaccine trials function. Although I personally feel very confident in the potential COVID-19 vaccines (so confident, in fact, that I volunteered for vaccine trials), I find that many people do not share my confidence. I am often frustrated by those who refuse vaccinations. Study after study has disproved common myths—such as the link between vaccinations and autism. Yet, many are hesitant to vaccinate. The reasons for their hesitancy are complex, and exploring the history of various antivaccination movements reveals that these debates are far from new.

The root of many vaccine fears happened in recent memory. It is widely known that in 1998, British physician Dr. Andrew Wakefield published his infamous paper in The Lancet, erroneously linking the MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) vaccine to autism. Although his claims were questioned almost immediately and the paper was officially retracted in 2010 (Eggerston), many people still question vaccines and their safety, including US president Donald Trump, who has made many public claims about vaccination safety, although he seemingly supports a COVID-19 vaccine (Trotter and Einbinder). In 2018, before the global pandemic ravaged the world, The Conversation posted the results of their multi-national study on public perception of vaccines, finding that one in five people surveyed believe that vaccines cause autism, and an additional 38% of participants were unsure of the link. Interestingly, the study found similar percentages of people who distrust vaccines across international lines, with the US, Sweden, the UK, France, and Italy all showing similar results (Duffy).

As you can tell, this is not a good environment for the COVID-19 vaccine. Although it’s easy for many of us to dismiss antivaccination campaigns as tied to Wakefield’s study, distrust and disinformation about vaccines existed long before Andrew Wakefield. In fact, Wakefield’s erroneous study, which started an antivaccination movement in the UK and US, isn’t even the first time that an antivaccination movement has gone transatlantic. Rather, Wakefield’s study only reinvigorated transatlantic debates from centuries prior about vaccination safety and efficacy.

In his 1884 book Compulsory Vaccination: With Incidental References to Foreign States in England, businessman, social reformer, and antivaccination advocate William Tebb argued:

“It has been said of old, that there is no deeper injustice than that which is committed in the name of law, and it may be added, that with, perhaps, the possible exception of the Fugitive Slave Law of America, there has been no law passed by any English-speaking Legislature, so unreasonable in its theory, and so hard-hearted in its practice, as the existing Vaccination Law of the British Empire.”

Tebb’s book responded to a series of British laws that made smallpox vaccinations mandatory for all children under the age of fourteen. In it, he made a case against vaccines using a variety of materials, including anecdotal evidence, doctor and scientist testimonies, and statistics. Tebb claimed not only that vaccines are dangerous and ineffective against smallpox, but that forcing vaccines on the public severely limited and restricted people’s personal rights (sound familiar?). Tebb quite purposefully compared British vaccination laws to American slavery law. Despite the fact that his book was first published in London and Tebb himself was British, he clearly aimed his book at American audiences as well, carefully blending statistics and anecdotes from both Britain and the US to make his argument against vaccination.

In 1879 in New York, Tebb found the perfect environment to create the Anti-Vaccination Society of America, one of the first organized groups against vaccinations. Although America’s antivaccination movement had many similarities to Britain’s movement, the United States had quite a different trajectory. Whereas antivaccinationists in Great Britain were able to amend the Vaccination Act to allow a conscientious objector clause and remove punishments for those who chose not to vaccinate, the United States eventually adopted stricter compulsory vaccination laws. In 1902, after several highly publicized court cases, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of compulsory vaccinations laws (“History of Antivaccination Movements”). Today, vaccines are not compulsory, but many public schools around the country require vaccinations for schoolchildren, ensuring relatively high vaccination rates—enough for herd immunity for most vaccine-preventable diseases—across the country.

Although the history of transatlantic antivaccination movements is far more detailed than I’ve outlined here, antivaccination movements are not isolated events, but rather parts of larger historical and cultural conversations. Reasons for these movements are varied. Although some people question vaccination safety, many of the arguments involve issues of personal freedom. Tebb intentionally tied antivaccination arguments to anti-slavery arguments, creating a false (but, for some, convincing) parallel between public health initiatives and personal liberty. We see this again with anti-mask protests, and it isn’t a stretch to think we will see this with the COVID-19 vaccine (Stewart).

If we view antivaccination movements as both an issue of science literacy and as part of a larger and more intricate debate about personal freedoms, we can better understand why public health policies surrounding COVID-19 are so complicated—and so frustrating. Perhaps we can find some level of comfort in knowing that these public health debates are not new; in fact, we’ve been having the same conversations for centuries. And yet, societies persisted, pandemics and epidemics ended, and medical science advanced. Our health policies and health education must respond to the historical and social complexity of antivaccination and anti-science activism. But we can win this debate. We’ve done it before.

Works Cited

Duffy, Bobby. “Autism and Vaccines: More than Half of People in Britain, France, Italy Still Think There May Be a Link.” The Conversation, 22 Aug. 2018, theconversation.com/autism-and-vaccines-more-than-half-of-people-in-britain-france-italy-still-think-there-may-be-a-link-101930.

“History of Anti-vaccination Movements.” History of Vaccines. The College of Physicians of Philadelphia, 3 Sept. 2014. Web. 13 Dec. 2018.

Stewart, Emily. “Anti-Maskers Explain Themselves.” Vox, Vox, 7 Aug. 2020, http://www.vox.com/the-goods/2020/8/7/21357400/anti-mask-protest-rallies-donald-trump-covid-19.

Tebb, William. Compulsory Vaccination in England: With Incidental References to Foreign States. E. W. Allen, 1884. Web. 14 Dec. 2014.

Trotter, J.K., and Nicole Einbinder. “The Powerful Media Mogul at the Core of Trump’s Debunked Views on Vaccines and Autism.” Insider, Insider, 3 Mar. 2020, www.insider.com/how-donald-trump-became-an-anti-vaccinationist-2019-9.

Image source: Pixabay

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