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Misconceptions about Vaccines

History of Anti-Vaccination Movements

Last updated 20 April 2022

Health and medical scholars have described vaccination as one of the top ten achievements of public health in the 20th century. Yet, opposition to vaccination has existed as long as vaccination itself. Critics of vaccination have taken various positions, including opposition to the smallpox vaccine in England and the United States in the mid to late 1800s, and the resulting anti-vaccination leagues; as well as more recent vaccination controversies, such as those surrounding the safety and efficacy of the diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis (DTP) immunization, the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine, and the use of a mercury-containing preservative called thimerosal.


Smallpox and the Anti-vaccination Leagues in England

Widespread smallpox vaccination began in the early 1800s, following Edward Jenner’s cowpox experiments, in which he showed he could protect a child from smallpox if he infected him or her with lymph from a cowpox blister. Jenner’s ideas were novel for his time, but they were met with immediate public criticism. The rationale for this criticism varied, and included sanitary, religious, scientific, and political objections.

For some parents, the smallpox vaccination itself induced fear and protest. It included scoring the flesh on a child’s arm, and inserting lymph from the blister of a person vaccinated about a week earlier. Some objectors, including the local clergy, believed the vaccine was “unchristian” because it came from an animal. For other anti-vaccinators, their discontent with the smallpox vaccine reflected their general distrust in medicine and in Jenner’s ideas about disease spread. Suspicious of the vaccine’s efficacy, some skeptics alleged that smallpox resulted from decaying matter in the atmosphere. Lastly, many people objected to vaccination because they believed it violated their personal liberty, a tension that worsened as the government developed mandatory vaccine policies.

The Vaccination Act of 1853 ordered mandatory vaccination for infants up to 3 months old, and the Act of 1867 extended this age requirement to 14 years, adding penalties for vaccine refusal. The laws were met with immediate resistance from citizens who demanded the right to control their bodies and those of their children. The Anti Vaccination League and the Anti-Compulsory Vaccination League formed in response to mandatory laws, and numerous anti-vaccination journals sprang up.  

The town of Leicester was a hotbed of anti vaccine activity and the site of many anti-vaccine rallies. The local paper described the details of a rally: “An escort was formed, preceded by a banner, to escort a young mother and two men, all of whom had resolved to give themselves up to the police and undergo imprisonment in preference to having their children vaccinated…The three were attended by a numerous crowd…three hearty cheers were given for them, which were renewed with increased vigor as they entered the doors of the police cells.” The Leicester Demonstration March of 1885 was one of the most notorious anti-vaccination demonstrations. There, 80,000-100,000 anti-vaccinators led an elaborate march, complete with banners, a child’s coffin, and an effigy of Jenner.

Such demonstrations and general vaccine opposition lead to the development of a commission designed to study vaccination. In 1896, the commission ruled that vaccination protected against smallpox, but suggested removing penalties for failure to vaccinate. The Vaccination Act of 1898 removed penalties and included a “conscientious objector” clause, so that parents who did not believe in vaccination’s safety or efficacy could obtain an exemption certificate.


Smallpox and the Anti-vaccination Leagues in the United States

Toward the end of the 19th century, smallpox outbreaks in the United States led to vaccine campaigns and related anti-vaccine activity. The Anti Vaccination Society of America was founded in 1879, following a visit to America by leading British anti-vaccinationist William Tebb. Two other leagues, the New England Anti Compulsory Vaccination League (1882) and the Anti-vaccination League of New York City (1885) followed. The American anti-vaccinationists waged court battles to repeal vaccination laws in several states, including California, Illinois, and Wisconsin.

In 1902, following a smallpox outbreak, the Board of Health of Cambridge, Massachusetts, mandated all city residents to be vaccinated against smallpox. City resident Henning Jacobson refused vaccination on the grounds that the law violated his right to care for his own body how he knew best. In turn, the city filed criminal charges against him. After losing his court battle locally, Jacobson appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1905 the Court found in the state’s favor, ruling that the state could enact compulsory laws to protect the public in the event of a communicable disease. This was the first U.S. Supreme Court case concerning the power of states in public health law. ,


The Diphtheria, Tetanus, and Pertussis (DTP) Vaccine Controversy

Anti-vaccination positions and vaccination controversies are not limited to the past. In the mid 1970s, an international controversy over the safety of the DTP immunization erupted in Europe, Asia, Australia, and North America. In the United Kingdom (UK), opposition resulted in a report from the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children in London, alleging 36 children suffered neurological conditions following DTP immunization. Television documentaries and newspaper reports drew public attention to the controversy. An advocacy group, the Association of Parents of Vaccine Damaged Children (APVDC), also piqued public interest in the potential risks and consequences of DTP.

In response to decreased vaccination rates and three major epidemics of whooping cough (pertussis), the Joint Commission on Vaccination and Immunization (JCVI), an independent expert advisory committee in the UK, confirmed the safety of the immunization. Nevertheless, public confusion continued, partly because of diverse opinions within the medical profession. For example, surveys of medical providers in the UK in the late 1970s found they were reluctant to recommend the immunization to all patients. Additionally, an outspoken physician and vaccine opponent, Gordon Stewart, published a series of case reports linking neurological disorders to DTP, sparking additional debate. In response, the JCVI launched the National Childhood Encephalopathy Study (NCES). The study identified every child between 2 and 36 months hospitalized in the UK for neurological illness, and assessed whether the immunization was associated with increased risk. NCES results indicated the risk was very low, and this data lent support to a national pro-immunization campaign. Members of the APVDC continued to argue in court for recognition and compensation, but were denied both due to the lack of evidence linking the DTP immunization with harm.

The U.S. controversy began with media attention on the alleged risks of DTP. A 1982 documentary, DPT: Vaccination Roulette, described alleged adverse reactions to the immunization and minimized the benefits. Similarly, a 1991 book titled A Shot in the Dark outlined potential risks. As in the UK, concerned and angry parents formed victim advocacy groups, but the counter response from medical organizations, like the Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, was stronger in the United States. Although the media storm instigated several lawsuits against vaccine manufacturers, increased vaccine prices, and caused some companies to stop making DTP, the overall controversy affected immunization rates less than in the UK.  

The Measles, Mumps, and Rubella (MMR) Vaccine Controversy

Nearly 25 years after the DTP controversy, England was again the site of anti-vaccination activity, this time regarding the MMR vaccine.

In 1998, British doctor Andrew Wakefield recommended further investigation of a possible relationship between bowel disease, autism, and the MMR vaccine. A few years later, Wakefield alleged the vaccine was not properly tested before being put into use. The media seized these stories, igniting public fear and confusion over the safety of the vaccine. The Lancet, the journal that originally published Wakefield’s work, stated in 2004 that it should not have published the paper. The General Medical Council, an independent regulator for doctors in the UK, found Wakefield had a “fatal conflict of interest.” A law board had paid him to find out if there was evidence to support a litigation case by parents who believed that the vaccine had harmed their children. In 2010, the Lancet formally retracted the paper after the British General Medical Council ruled against Wakefield in several areas. Wakefield was struck from the medical register in Great Britain and may no longer practice medicine there. In January 2011, the BMJ published a series of reports by journalist Brian Deer outlining evidence Wakefield committed scientific fraud by falsifying data, and also that Wakefield hoped to financially profit from his investigations in several ways.

Many research studies have been conducted to assess the safety of the MMR vaccine, and none of them has found a link between the vaccine and autism.


“Green Our Vaccines”

Thimerosal, a mercury containing compound used as a preservative in vaccines, has also been the center of a vaccination and autism controversy.  Although there is no clear scientific evidence that small amounts of thimerosal in vaccines cause harm, leading U.S. public health and medical organizations and vaccine manufacturers agreed that thimerosal should be reduced or eliminated from vaccines as a precautionary measure in 1999. In 2001, the Institute of Medicine’s Immunization Safety Review Committee issued a report concluding there was not enough evidence to prove or disprove claims that thimerosal in childhood vaccines causes autism, attention deficit hypersensitivity disorder, or speech or language delay. A more recent report by the committee “favors rejection of a causal relationship between thimerosal-containing vaccines and autism.” Even with this finding, some researchers continue to study the possible links between thimerosal and autism. Today, thimerosal is no longer used in most childhood vaccines, though some forms of influenza vaccine available in multi-dose vials may contain the preservative.

Despite scientific evidence, concerns over thimerosal have led to a public “Green Our Vaccines” campaign, a movement to remove “toxins” from vaccines, for fear that these substances lead to autism. Celebrity Jenny McCarthy, her advocacy group Generation Rescue, and the organization Talk about Curing Autism (TACA) have spearheaded these efforts.



Although the time periods have changed, the emotions and deep-rooted beliefs—whether philosophical, political, or spiritual—that underlie vaccine opposition have remained relatively consistent since Edward Jenner introduced vaccination.



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