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Antivaccination Culture: Analytical Essay on Smallpox Vaccination

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The opposition to vaccination was cultural and built upon societal value in money which resulted in the spread of mass religious hysteria, propaganda, and falsified data.

Smallpox is a disease where small blisters pop up on the face, arms, and body. These then fill up with pus and customs develop a rash. It’s a deadly disease. Vaccinations and the anti-vaccination movement go hand in hand with the rise and eradication of Smallpox.

During the 15th and 16th, Century Smallpox was at its peak. Because it was easily transmitted, it was hard to control. Medical practices were still backward. Doctors believed that the color red and bloodletting were the best treatment options. “Between 20 and 60 percent of the infected died” and those who survived were left with life-altering scars or disabilities. One doctor remarked that those who could afford treatment were doing worse off than those who couldn’t. This didn’t stop him from prescribing eccentric treatments though. ()

Besides backward medical practices, scientific knowledge had advanced during this time. Germ theory was forming, and rudimentary “vaccines” could be found. Vaccination did not start in Europe, many other cultures and areas including China, Africa, and India had their own system of “inoculation“. It was general knowledge that once one bore the tell-tale scars of Smallpox he or she couldn’t get sick again. Doctors interpreted this and began inoculation via different methods, including ingesting nasally or injecting. By the 17th century, western Europe had begun utilizing methods they’d seen in Turkey known as Variolation. This was the process of removing pus or liquid from the smallpox sores on a mildly infected person and either inhaling them or scratching the liquid into the arm of a healthy person. The variolated person would then develop the symptoms of Smallpox. Variolation had a higher survival rate than Smallpox itself but it was not staggering and was quite questionable. Much of the time the infection spread too quickly to control. Many argued that the act of inoculation was adding to the risks to the epidemic and not decreasing the number of deaths. ()

In 1763 variolation was banned in France. The experimentation going on that time would have been banned by today’s standards because it was not controlled or ethical. Variolayed patients were not quarantined or given proper care, and the diseases spread to those who were not participating. This made people nervous and distrustful, keep in mind that we doctors still practicing bloodletting with leeches, people still believed diseases were caused by supernatural sources and curses. It made better sense to let the disease run naturally instead of bringing it to the population manually. ()

By the second half of the 18th century, smallpox was at its most destructive stage in Europe. Variolation was not working well enough, and the public was losing confidence. “There was an observation among country folk in several parts of Europe that milkmaids were rarely pockmarked, and the local belief was that they were protected because of an infection acquired from cows”. Dr. Edward Jenner of Gloucestershire, England was very interested in this. He had spent many years studying variolation and felt that this phenomenon may lead to a better system. In May 1796 he tested this cow theory by inoculating an eight-year-old boy, with discharge collected from a cowpox-infected dairy maid’s hands. The boy only developed a mild fever and experienced discomfort near the incision. Jenner inoculated the boy two months later, this time with pus from a fresh smallpox lesion. No disease developed, and he concluded that his inoculation worked. Jenner then arranged a paper depicting this case alongside 13 different people who had contracted either horsepox or cowpox before being presented to smallpox. The Royal Society dismissed this paper and proposed that Jenner stop his cowpox investigations due to speculation that he tampered with the data. (Riedel, 2005)

However, Jenner privately published a small booklet entitled An Inquiry into the Causes and Effects of the Variolae Vaccine, a disease discovered in some of the western counties of England, particularly Gloucestershire and Known by the Name of Cow Pox. It was a report on his findings and a manual for doctors to repeat his inoculations. It was a successful paper. So much so that vaccination was taken up with remarkable speed all over Europe and in the newly independent United States of America. Vaccine production was conducted without any sort of state control. Physicians maintained their own stocks of ‘humanized’ vaccines by arm-to-arm inoculations. The Spanish Royal Philanthropic Expedition to brings smallpox vaccination to the New World and Asia due to Edward’s efforts.

“The distrust and skepticism which naturally arose in the minds of medical men.. has now nearly disappeared. Many hundreds of them, from actual experience, have given their attestations that the inoculated Cowpox proves a perfect security against the Smallpox; and I shall probably be within compass if I say, thousands are ready to follow their example.” wrote Jenner. He was confident in his findings and felt that smallpox was “the most dreadful scourge” and that his vaccination method would help end it. Smallpox was eradicated in 1980 by the World Health Organization, largely due to vaccination efforts, just shy of Jenner’s 200 prediction.

Regardless of Jenner’s naivety in his support, the smallpox vaccination faced opposition since its conception. At the beginning of the 19th century, the educated public was receptive to Jenner’s idea. “Unlike many other diseases that were common at the time, smallpox struck at all levels of society and was the object of much dread. Variolation had by then been widely accepted; Jenner’s vaccine was a way of providing the advantages of variolation without the risks either to the person inoculated or to his fellows” (Smallpox and its eradication – Red Book, 2019). But Jenner was not without critics. Other scientists were particularly critical of Jenner. They argued that the disadvantages of vaccination, especially the danger of transmitting syphilis by arm-to-arm vaccination.

Members of the Church raised objections that vaccination was interfering with the will of Go. English theologian Reverend Edmund Massey. argued that “diseases are sent by God to punish sin and that any attempt to prevent smallpox via inoculation is a diabolical operation.” (Watling,2019). Average God-fearing citizens already distrusting of a halfway successful science were now angered by the blatant disrespect of God, especially by their kings and queens. Priests also preached that Satan was the original vaccinator because of the bible story in which Satan tortures a man with boils. Priests accused doctors of subverting the divine plan by changing who lives and dies. Lastly, Priests argued that diseases like Smallpox were a form of birth control for the poor families who had too many children and that God taking those children out of misery. () Keepin mass hysteria about diseases alive provided churches with a steady influx of god-fearing church goers and a steady source of income.

Doctors who had been living comfortably because of the lengths wealthy patients were willing to go to and because of the fees they charged for treatments began to incite fear in the public. They published reports that vaccinations made from a cow would turn you into a cow. And later resorted to publishing images depicting people growing horns, tails, or whole cows after being vaccinated in newspapers to spread their message to the illiterate of Europe.

Average citizens did not understand how putting “poison’ into themselves could protect themselves from future diseases. And now, not only were their doctors telling them to stop vaccinating, but their religious leaders were as well. The performed sermons and published reports reached citizens in numbers that honest doctors and vaccine supporters could not copy.

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Mandatory vaccination laws were passed in England from 1853 to 1871, the first of their kind. These permitted parents to be fined until their child was vaccinated, made negligent parents liable, and in default of fines and costs, parents could be jailed. Citizens were outraged, especially those working in factories as this was the time of the industrial revolution.

“Compulsory vaccination conflicted with growing sentiments favouring personal freedom of choice” ( The History Of Vaccines And Immunization: Familiar Patterns, 2017 Workers were already angered by the situation that they had to work in and felt that employers requiring them to take vaccinations, regardless of the personal benefit was another infringement upon their personal liberties. It was another instance in which employers were not seeing their workers as individuals but simply as a means of creating good and that they were just simply fixing machinery to make it more efficient. The opposition of factory workers against mandatory vaccinations was connected to Socialism efforts.

Gradually, individuals found organized means of expressing their discontent, creating AntiCompulsory Vaccination Leagues, to convey the sentiments of the rural population and the agricultural middle classes. ‘In retrospect, the movement was part of a wider public reaction against the advance of `new science’ and scientific medicine. Fear, distrust, and the human tendency to cherish `natural’ methods of treatment and `sanitary’ methods of prevention could be overcome only by educational means.” (Belloginia, 2003) This would have required the cooperation of physicians and lawyers which was absent at this time. Instead, the laws were repealed.

During this time, influential people in the anti-vax movement in Europe came and visited the US to spread their message and gain support. They left behind the seed’s for the anti-vax movements in the US. “British reformer William Tebb began spreading anti-vax propaganda to Americans in the 1870s, including the (fictitious) statistics that 25,000 British children were ‘slaughtered’ each year because of vaccines and that 80 percent of smallpox deaths were among people who had been vaccinated.” (The History Of Vaccines And Immunization: Familiar Patterns, 2019).These arguments encouraged anti-vaxxers in the U.S.

The American anti-vaxx movement was also strengthened by patent medicines and homeopathic ‘cures’ in the mid-to-late 19th century. Anyone could call themselves a physician and claim that lifestyle, diet and medicinal herbs were enough to ward off even the most serious diseases. Vaccination programs directly threatened these salesmen—and they fought hard against them.

One of these influential “physicians”, DD Palmer, founded Chiropractic Medicine in 1895. He had very out-of-the-norm practices including magnetic healing and convinced much of the American public to believe in his case for an all natural approach. He hated vaccines, after all they prevented much what his business was based on. “The idea of poisoning healthy people with vaccine virus… is irrational. People make a great ado if exposed to a contagious disease, but they submit to being inoculated with rotten pus, which if it takes, is warranted to give them a disease”. Palmer not only rejected the idea of smallp]ox vaccinations, he outright rejected smallpox’s deffintion ‘If we had one hundred cases of smallpox, I can prove to you, in one, you will find a subluxation and you will find the same condition in the other ninety-nine. I adjust one and return his function to normal… There is no contagious disease.” (Gleberzon, 2013).

Another saleswoman was Lora Little. In 1906 she had a son named Kenneth Marion Little. In April 1896 he died. Lora blamed his death on the smallpox vaccine. She began a crusade against vaccines and published a book, Crimes of the Cowpox Ring: Some Moving Pictures Thrown On The Dead Wall of Official Silence, where she details and records the photographs of the accounts of vaccinations gone haywire. One of the patients photographed is Benjamin Olewine. He is close to the end of his life and has got very large soft tissue tumour, most likely a sarcoma, growing out of his upper chest. It’s on the same side that he was vaccinated, but nowhere near the vaccination site. Little has a sarcastic footnote to his photograph: “saved from smallpox by vaccination”. Her book sold thousands of copies, her loss of her son coupled with the public’s appetite for gore and scandal about the government-backed vaccination programs labelled it a success.

The obvious lack of science and fact-based research was conveniently overlooked But, as the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia notes, “…Mrs. Little’s son, Kenneth, was vaccinated in September 1895 and died in April 1896. Between the time of inoculation and death, he suffered recurrent ear and throat infections, measles and diphtheria. The latter was the ultimate cause of his death. Mrs. Little pointed to ‘the artificial pollution of the blood,’ [that] had fatally weakened his constitution and left him at the mercy of the subsequent infections.” (“Lora Little: The Vaccine Liberator | History of Vaccines,” 2019)

So in the best case scenario, Keneth did not die because of his vaccination. Regardless, Little’s story resonated with the rest of America.”If you look at what was happening to American children at that time, then you will see that his run of bad luck was by no means exceptional. At that time, only six out of ten American children actually lived to count ten candles on their birthday cake” (Williams,2011). Parents saw their tragedies in Littles trauma, and with pressure from other influential people such as Palmer, vaccination rates dropped and participation in ANti-Vaccination leagues skyrocketed in America at this time. Both Palmer and Little grew rich as a result and the mortality rate of Smallpox and other preventable diseases, which had just begun to drop, started to rise again.

Fast forward almost a hundred years after the eradication of smallpox. Largely due to the education of the general public and multiple smallpox scares.

The now ex-doctor Andrew Wakefield connected vaccinations to Autism. Autism has been around for a long time and can be argued that it is on the rise again and there are lots of specialists setting themselves up, with a particular interest in autism. Andrew Wakefield published a paper in 1998, in the Lancet, “claiming to have found a connection between vaccination with MMR, Measles, Mumps, Rubella, and the subsequent development of gut disease, Crohn’s disease, and also with autism in children”. This was published in the Lancet, one of the top three highest profile medical journals on the planet. It actually too over a decade to get Wakefield’s paper properly reviewed and critiqued and retracted.It has now turned out, thanks to a fairly exhaustive investigation by the BMJ that this was science-driven by money. Andrew Wakefield was hired by a solicitor to help a group of parents sue the vaccine manufacturers.

This is a cycle seen throughout history. People of great societal standing, whether religious or scientific scum to the greed of money and publish findings or data and preach against the evils of a service designed for the public good.

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Antivaccination Culture: Analytical Essay on Smallpox Vaccination. (2022, July 14). Edubirdie. Retrieved December 5, 2022, from
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