The Atlanta Vaccination War of 1897

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The Atlanta Vaccination War of 1897

When discussing vaccine in the black community, the Tuskegee Experiment almost always comes up. Truth be told, vaccine hesitancy in the Black community goes back a lot further than that. Check out this New York Times article from December 7, 1897.

Reading that article made me curious to learn if there were other vaccine hesitancy events in history. I looked around and found this article published on Science News. Here’s a quote…

In 1809, Massachusetts passed the world’s first known mandatory vaccination law, requiring the general population to receive the smallpox vaccine. Resistance began to grow as other states passed similar laws. Then the U.K. Vaccination Act of 1853 required parents to get infants vaccinated by 3 months old, or face fines or imprisonment. The law sparked violent riots and the formation of the Anti-Vaccination League of London. Vaccine resisters were often poor people suspicious of a forced medical intervention since, under normal circumstances, they rarely received any health care. Anti-vaccination groups argued that compulsory vaccination violated personal liberty, writing that the acts “trample upon the right of parents to protect their children from disease” and “invaded liberty by rendering good health a crime.”

Anti-vaccination sentiment grew and spread across Europe until an 1885 demonstration of about 100,000 people in Leicester, England, prompted the British monarchy to appoint a commission to study the issue. The resulting 1896 report led to an 1898 act that removed penalties for parents who didn’t believe vaccination was safe or effective. The act introduced the term “conscientious objectors,” which later became more commonly associated with those who refuse military service on religious or moral grounds.

Across the Atlantic, most U.S. residents had embraced Jenner’s cowpox protective, leading to a precipitous drop in smallpox outbreaks. But with fewer outbreaks, complacency set in and vaccination rates dropped. As smallpox outbreaks resurfaced in the 1870s, states began enforcing existing vaccination laws or passing new ones. British anti-vaccinationist William Tebb visited New York in 1879, which led to the founding of the Anti-Vaccination Society of America. The group’s tactics will sound familiar: pamphlets, court battles and arguments in state legislatures that led to the repeal of mandatory vaccination laws in seven states. The 1905 Supreme Court decision Jacobson v. Massachusetts upheld a state’s right to mandate vaccines; it remains precedent today.

Funny, isn’t it? The more things change, the more they stay the same. Truly, there is nothing new under the sun. Check out this article on the history of anti-vaccination movements as well. Very informative.


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