How do the anti-smallpox vaccines compare to those today?


Three years ago, I wrote a story for Discover who described the long history of anti-vaccination sentiment in the United States. At the time, the country was experiencing a wave of measles epidemics in its metropolitan centers in places like Kansas City, Austin, Seattle, Portland and Phoenix – all because parents chose not to vaccinate their children against the measles. highly infectious disease.

At the time, COVID-19 did not exist, and many would never have imagined that a virus like this would tear the country apart like wildfire. Many of the diseases we vaccinate against today have disappeared or almost disappeared. We don’t see smallpox, polio or mumps ravaging our population, so it can be easy to forget the damage these diseases can do, and to think that vaccinations are no longer a necessity. But COVID-19 has changed that.

We now see more than 1,000 Americans die at the hands of this disease every day, even as a result of the Recent FDA approval one of the vaccines. There are a number of reasons people may opt out or delay getting the coronavirus vaccine: Some say they’re ready to get the shot, but wait for time to pass because they think it’s too new. Others fear that a different, more effective vaccine may come out later in response to newer variants of COVID-19. And still, some think they are young and healthy enough to grow it back completely.

But while all those who did not get the shot are not fiercely opposed to it, a significant number of Americans remain firm in their refusal. Some are even ready to take deworming pills for horses rather than receiving the vaccine, even though patients pack intensive care units across the country. And according to the Centers for Disaster Control and Prevention, unvaccinated people are 29 times more likely to be hospitalized because of the virus.

Peter Hotez, co-director of the Center for Vaccine Development at Texas Children’s Hospital, said many of the same anti-vaccination groups fueling vaccine resistance existed before the pandemic. But they’ve recently been put in the spotlight by the high-profile nature of COVID-19. More particularly, the “Misinformation DozenWhich includes anti-vaccine activists like Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Joseph Mercola and other longtime anti-government conspiracy theorists. Hotez says these groups have also worked to convince minorities and immigrants, who are more likely to be hesitant about vaccination because they often trust public health officials less.

“These are not grassroots family organizations; they are well-funded and well-organized entities, with some 58 million followers, ”Hotez explains.

Another problematic propagator of health disinformation comes from a political right-wing group known as “health freedom movementMany of these activists claim that their “medical freedom” outweighs public health concerns, even at the risk of death. They also tend to oppose mask mandates and social distancing. The issue has become a political wedge, opening the door to the third track of what Hotez calls the “three-headed monster”: he says the Russian government tries to use anti-vax misinformation on social media to divide the nation, as was the case during President Trump’s election.

Together, these groups have combined to cause a lot of damage, especially in parts of the country where vaccination rates are particularly low, such as Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, South Carolina and Tennessee. But unsettling as it may be, it wouldn’t be the first time anti-vaccination groups and vaccine denials have threatened public health. Over a century ago, when another deadly virus – smallpox – enveloped the nation, similar groups pushed the same anti-science rhetoric.

The anti-vaccine movement: yesterday and today

American historian Michael Willrich, author of Smallpox: An American History, says many of those who were part of the anti-vaccination movement in the late 19th century were mostly doctors of alternative medicine. These people felt marginalized by science-based medical care in many cases, and displaced by state licensing requirements. Often they just didn’t want to comply with the new national version of medicine. Another representative sample of anti-vaccines consisted of writers, opinion leaders and intellectuals who held anti-government views and felt that the state should not be involved in health issues. “Medical freedom was a rallying cry for the anti-vaccination movement at the turn of the 20th century,” says Willrich.

It’s easy to see how these groups might look like anti-vaccine groups in the COVID-19 era. Today we still see alternative medicine practitioners, like Joseph Mercola, an osteopathic doctor who makes money selling books and nutritional supplements on his website. Mercola is considered one of the biggest disseminators of health misinformation around COVID-19 vaccines, posting more than 600 articles on Facebook that question vaccine safety and selling vitamin D supplements that he says improve immunity and reduce risks around COVID-19. Contemporary anti-government and anti-state groups are also similar to those that existed 100 years ago. These include groups like Stand for Health Freedom (SHF), which opposes mask and vaccine mandates, as well as advocating for religious freedom in health matters.

But the difference between historic bands and those of today, Willrich says, is within their grasp. Organized leagues and social movements at the turn of the century were comparatively small. He adds that the majority of vaccine refusals were not part of a larger movement, but simply refused to be vaccinated – often because they were afraid of the vaccine at a time when vaccinations were not regulated for the disease. security as they are today. . Some fled when public health officials came to their neighborhood. They took their children out of school and in other cases revolted. Poor southern minorities and immigrants in big cities like Boston, Philadelphia and New York were among the most hesitant at the time. “Minorities and immigrants were more likely to have felt the heavy hand of the state,” says Willrich.

These marginalized populations were keenly aware, he said, that they were more likely to be vaccinated through more authoritarian means. In his book, Willrich documents numerous cases of black Americans and immigrants who are forcibly vaccinated against their will. These racist practices have probably helped fuel the modern reluctance of vaccines among disenfranchised groups.

The policy of anti-vaccination groups

Yet what is striking about our current struggles is how reluctance and refusal of vaccines has become so politicized, says Willrich. At the start of the 20th century, compulsory vaccination was not used as a political wedge, and refusals were not made by a certain party or affiliation. Today, those who have spread vaccine misinformation – and anti-vaccination sentiments with it – include conservative members of the United States House of Representatives and Senate, as well as many right-wing news outlets. Some of these prominent conservatives and media outlets abruptly changed your tone in recent months, however, and are now encouraging vaccinations.

A century ago, anti-vaccination groups organized small rallies and handed out brochures. They had a few newsletters – the most famous, The liberator, a magazine published by the famous anti-vaccination Lora Little of Minneapolis. But newspapers, which were the most dispersed media at the time, wholeheartedly supported compulsory vaccination. Today, big news hosts like Fox News’ Tucker Carlson have adopted anti-science rhetoric, making statements about the ineffectiveness of vaccines. Newsmax host Rob Schmitt even said the vaccines were “unnatural”.

Yet the biggest dispenser of modern vaccine misinformation comes from the internet and social media. According to a report from the Center for Countering Digital Hate, The Disinformation Dozen mentioned above is responsible for up to 65% of anti-vaccine content found online and in social media.

“The extraordinary reach of the Internet and the misinformation that goes with it is available to everyone,” says Willrich. And since 9 in 10 deaths from COVID-19 are now among the unvaccinated, rapidly changing the minds of this population is a matter of life and death importance.


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