The Age-Old Struggle against the Antivaccinationists

New England Journal of Medicine

Gregory A. Poland, M.D., and Robert M. Jacobson, M.D.
N Engl J Med 2011; 364:97-99
January 13, 2011

Since the introduction of the first vaccine, there has been opposition to vaccination. In the 19th century, despite clear evidence of benefit, routine inoculation with cowpox to protect people against smallpox was hindered by a burgeoning antivaccination movement. The result was ongoing smallpox outbreaks and needless deaths. In 1910, Sir William Osler publicly expressed his frustration with the irrationality of the antivaccinationists by offering to take 10 vaccinated and 10 unvaccinated people with him into the next severe smallpox epidemic, to care for the latter when they inevitably succumbed to the disease, and ultimately to arrange for the funerals of those among them who would die (see the Medical Notes section of the Dec. 22, 1910, issue of the Journal). A century later, smallpox has been eradicated through vaccination, but we are still contending with antivaccinationists.

Since the 18th century, fear and mistrust have arisen every time a new vaccine has been introduced. Antivaccine thinking receded in importance between the 1940s and the early 1980s because of three trends: a boom in vaccine science, discovery, and manufacture; public awareness of widespread outbreaks of infectious diseases (measles, mumps, rubella, pertussis, polio, and others) and the desire to protect children from these highly prevalent ills; and a baby boom, accompanied by increasing levels of education and wealth. These events led to public acceptance of vaccines and their use, which resulted in significant decreases in disease outbreaks, illnesses, and deaths. This golden age was relatively short-lived, however. With fewer highly visible outbreaks of infectious disease threatening the public, more vaccines being developed and added to the vaccine schedule, and the media permitting widespread dissemination of poor science and anecdotal claims of harm from vaccines, antivaccine thinking began flourishing once again in the 1970s.1

Little has changed since that time, although now the antivaccinationists’ media of choice are typically television and the Internet, including its social media outlets, which are used to sway public opinion and distract attention from scientific evidence. A 1982 television program on diphtheria–pertussis–tetanus (DPT) vaccination entitled “DPT: Vaccine Roulette” led to a national debate on the use of the vaccine, focused on a litany of unproven claims against it. Many countries dropped their programs of universal DPT vaccination in the face of public protests after a period in which pertussis had been well controlled through vaccination2 — the public had become complacent about the risks of the disease and focused on adverse events purportedly associated with vaccination. Countries that dropped routine pertussis vaccination in the 1970s and 1980s then suffered 10 to 100 times the pertussis incidence of countries that maintained high immunization rates; ultimately, the countries that had eliminated their pertussis vaccination programs reinstated them.2 In the United States, vaccine manufacturers faced an onslaught of lawsuits, which led the majority of them to cease vaccine production. These losses prompted the development of new programs, such as the Vaccine Injury Compensation Program (VICP), in an attempt to keep manufacturers in the U.S. market.

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“Antivaccinationists” – big word for such small-minded people.


Author: Leslie Carol Botha

Author, publisher, radio talk show host and internationally recognized expert on women's hormone cycles. Social/political activist on Gardasil the HPV vaccine for adolescent girls. Co-author of "Understanding Your Mood, Mind and Hormone Cycle." Honorary advisory board member for the Foundation for the Study of Cycles and member of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research.