When Did the Anti-Vaccine Movement Really Start?

A Brief History

Vaccines
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It is likely a surprise to many people that there has always been an anti-vaccine movement. It isn't something new that was created by Jenny McCarthy and Bob Sears.

18th Century Anti-Vaccine Movement

In fact, the anti-vaccine movement essentially predates the first vaccine.

Edward Jenner's first experiments with a smallpox vaccine began in 1796.

Even before that, variolation as a technique to prevent smallpox was practiced for centuries in many parts of the world, including Africa, China, India, and the Ottoman Empire.

In fact, Onesimus, his African slave, taught Cotton Mather about the technique in 1706.

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu introduced inoculation to England, having learned about the practice in Turkey. As she encouraged others to inoculate and protect their children against smallpox, including the Royal Family, there was much debate. It is said that "Pro-inoculators tended to write in the cool and factual tones encouraged by the Royal Society, with frequent appeals to reason, the modern progress of science and the courtesy subsisting among gentlemen. Anti-inoculators purposely wrote like demagogues, using heated tones and lurid scare stories to promote paranoia."

Were those the first vaccine debates?

19th Century Anti-Vaccine Movement

Eventually, Edward Jenner's smallpox vaccine replaced variolation.

Even though this was much safer than the previous practice and smallpox was still a big killer, there were still those who objected.

Much of the resistance may have come because getting the smallpox vaccine in the UK in the 19th century was compulsory—you had to vaccinate your children or you would be fined, and the fines were cumulative.

The Anti-Vaccination League was created shortly after the passage of the Vaccination Act of 1853.

Another group, the Anti-Cumpulsory Vaccination League, was founded after the passage of the Vaccination Act of 1867, which raised the age requirements for getting the smallpox vaccine from 3 months to 14 years old.

There were anti-vaccination leagues in the United States, too.

That they actually called them "anti-vaccine" is one of the only big differences between these groups and the modern anti-vaccine movement.

Anti-vaccine groups in the 19th Century typically:

  • said that vaccines would make you sick
  • blamed medical despotism, “a hard, materialistic, infidel thing” for creating the vaccination acts
  • warned about poisonous chemicals in vaccines, namely carbolic acid in the smallpox vaccine
  • said that Jenner’s smallpox vaccine didn’t work
  • pushed alternative medical practices, including herbalists, homeopaths, and hydropaths, etc.
  • used their own literature to scare people away from vaccines

They even had some celebrities join the anti-vaccine movement, including George Barnard Shaw, who also believed in homeopathy and eugenics.

20th Century Anti-Vaccine Movement

Anti-vaccine groups didn’t change much in the 19th and early 20th Century.

That’s perhaps not too surprising, as after Jenner’s smallpox vaccine, it would be almost 100 years before another vaccine was developed—Louis Pasteur’s vaccine against rabies in 1885.

And it was more than 50 years before the American Academy of Pediatrics formally approved the use of a pertussis vaccine (1943).

Over the next few decades, the other vital vaccines that we know today were developed, including the DPT vaccine, polio vaccines, and MMR, etc.

Of course, the anti-vaccine movement was alive and well during this time, using all of the same tactics.

In 1973, John Wilson and M. Kulenkampff reported on 50 children seen over 11 years at the Hospital for Sick Children in London. He reported on a clustering of neurological complications in the first 24 hours of the kids getting their DPT shot, even though his team didn’t actually see the children for months or years later. In 1974, they reported the findings of 36 of these children in the Archives of Diseases in Childhood.

As with a later report by Wakefield, media coverage of this small study led to fear of vaccines and lower immunization rates. John Wilson even appeared on "This Week," a prime-time TV show in the UK. The consequences were not unexpected. In addition to a large outbreak in England, with at least 100,000 cases and 36 deaths, there were pertussis outbreaks and deaths in Japan, Sweden, and Wales after this study. Pertussis deaths in the UK were likely underreported, though, and some experts think that actual number of childhood deaths was closer to 600.

While many people think that Lea Thompson's "DPT: Vaccine Roulette" in 1982 helped create the modern anti-vaccine movement, it should be clear that others had a hand.

This was also the time that Dr. Robert Mendelsohn, a self-proclaimed “medical heretic” and one of the first anti-vaccine pediatricians, became infamous for writing “The Medical Time Bomb of Immunization Against Disease” and making the rounds on the talk shows of the day. Mendelsohn also was against adding fluoride to water and "coronary bypass surgery, licensing of nutritionists, and screening examinations to detect breast cancer."

Lea Thompson’s show did prompt Barbara Loe Fisher and a few other parents to form the group Dissatisfied Parents Together (DPT). And from there we got her book, “A Shot in the Dark,” that had such a great influence on Dr. Bob Sears, and the eventual formation of the National Vaccine Information Center.

And since excerpts of "DPT: Vaccine Roulette" even ran nationally on the Today Show, it likely influenced a lot more people.

Next came accusations that the DPT vaccine caused SIDS. And that the hepatitis B vaccine causes SIDS. Barbara Loe Fisher was in the middle of many of these accusations, even testifying before Congress.

And while she was certainly not the first anti-vaccine celebrity, this was the time (1990) when Lisa Bonet of The Cosby Show fame went on The Donahue Show and said that vaccines could "introduce alien microorganisms into our children's blood and the long-term effects which could be trivial or they could be quite hazardous - and they could just be allergies or asthma or sleep disorders or they could be cancer, leukemia, multiple sclerosis, sudden infant death syndrome. It's very scary and it's very serious, and I think because I felt wrong doing it...that's why I didn't do it. You know we have to think twice. You know why are our kids getting these diseases?"

A few years later, in 1994, the first deaf Miss America was crowned, with her mother blaming the DPT vaccine for her child’s deafness. Like many other vaccine-injury stories, Heather Whitestone’s story wasn’t what it seemed. Her pediatrician quickly came forward and set the record straight—she was deaf because of a life-threatening case of Hib meningitis and the subsequent treatment with an ototoxic antibiotic. It took several days for the media to run the corrected story, though.

Born in 1973, it would be another 15 years before the first Hib vaccine was approved and began to be routinely given to children. The DPT vaccine, which has never been shown to cause hearing problems, had nothing to do with Heather Whitestone’s deafness. It certainly didn’t stop anti-vaccine groups from using her initial story and the media coverage to scare parents about vaccines, though.

This is about the same time that Katie Couric did a segment on the NBC News show Now with Tom Brokaw and Katie Couric about DPT "hot lots."

But of course, things didn’t really get moving in the modern anti-vaccine movement until the 1998 press conference for Andrew Wakefield’s study, when he said that “that is my feeling, that the risk of this particular syndrome developing is related to the combined vaccine, the MMR, rather than the single vaccines.”

ABC’s 20/20 even got in on the anti-vaccine misinformation, raising “serious new questions about a vaccine most children are forced to get” in their 1999 episode “Who’s Calling the Shots?”

The media didn't take as big an interest in the fact that:

  • a series of lawsuits in England which were brought against the manufacturers of the DPT vaccines claiming they caused children to develop seizures and brain damage all found that the DPT vaccines did not cause vaccine injuries
  • a 1991 IOM report which concluded that the evidence doesn't indicate a causal relationship between DPT and SIDS and there was insufficient evidence to suggest a causal relationship between DPT and chronic neurological damage and many other disorders
  • many cases of alleged vaccine encephalopathy secondary to the DPT vaccine were in fact caused by Dravet syndrome

It should even be considered "media malpractice" that they didn't correct all of the misinformation in the Vaccine Roulette piece.

21st Century Anti-Vaccine Movement

The anti-vaccine groups in the 21st Century aren’t that much different from their 19th Century counterparts. They still:

  • say that vaccines will make you sick
  • blame Big Pharma
  • warn about poisonous chemicals and toxins in vaccines, although they continue to shift which chemicals they worry about, moving from thimerosal to formaldehyde and aluminum, etc.
  • say that Jenner’s smallpox vaccine didn’t work and neither do any of the other ones
  • push alternative medical practices, including herbalists, homeopaths, chiropractic, naturopaths, and other holistic providers
  • use their own literature to scare people away from vaccines

One difference is that instead of a few people writing pamphlets with their anti-vaccine ideas, like they did in Boston in 1721, now anyone can reach a lot more people by starting their own website or blog, posting in message boards, writing a book, or getting on TV, etc.

Another is that even more than the late 20th Century, we saw a great rise in the media scaring parents about vaccines in the last 10 or 15 years, including:

  • Jenny McCarthy on Larry King Live
  • Holly Pete on Larry King Live
  • Jenny McCarthy on Oprah in 2007
  • Jenny McCarthy in Time magazine in 2009
  • Matt Lauer interviewing Andrew Wakefield on Dateline in 2009
  • Katie Couric and HPV in 2013
  • Barbara Loe Fisher discussing "Forced Vaccinations" on Lou Dobbs in 2009
  • Matt Lauer and his hour-long Dateline episode, A Dose of Controversy, with Andrew Wakefield himself
  • Robert DeNiro on the Today Show in 2016

This is also the time when we saw the rise of the celebrity anti-vaccine spokesperson and the pandering pediatricians.

And we should have seen them coming. We were less than a week into the year 2000 when Cindy Crawford appeared on Good Morning America with her celebrity pediatrician, Dr. Jay Gordon.

But what's really different today? Although the great majority of people still vaccinate their kids, clusters of intentionally unvaccinated children are certainly on the rise. And it is these clusters of unvaccinated kids and adults that are leading to a rise in outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases that are getting harder to control.

One thing that may be different now is that more people have grasped on to the Natural is the new Medicine movement. From amber necklaces and essential oils to sports magnets and homeopathic "medicines" on pharmacy shelves, these things go hand in hand with the modern anti-vaccine movement.

In addition to pandering pediatricians who push non-standard, parent-selected, delayed protection vaccine schedules, we now have more and more chiropractors, naturopaths, holistic pediatricians, and integrative pediatricians who might advise a parent to skip vaccines all together. And with Dr. Oz on TV pushing a lot of these types of holistic remedies on TV every day, it probably does seem like an OK thing to do.

Big natural remedy websites that also push everything from organic food to medical conspiracy theories also provide a lot of fodder for anti-vaccine folks. Many others push fear about chemicals, so it isn't surprising that it would be easy to scare parents about vaccines.

But still, it is important to keep in mind that these things have not become mainstream, it is just that the anti-vaccine movement has become a big business. From selling vitamins, supplements, e-books, e-courses, and holistic treatments to pushing for new laws ensuring that kids can stay intentionally unvaccinated and unprotected, they are the very vocal minority.

Of course, that doesn't make them right.

Get Educated. Get Vaccinated. Stop the Outbreaks.

 

Sources:

Offit. Deadly Choices.

Vaccines (Sixth Edition) 2013

Wolfe RM. Anti-vaccinationists past and present. BMJ. 2002d;325:430-432.

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