The antivaxxers have been at it for a very long time.
As a historian of medicine, it’s become clear from researching the history of vaccines that those who promote anti-vaccination consistently use a standard set of strategies. Although it can be hard to see patterns of argument in the modern context, looking back at a historical instance of epidemic and misinformation provides a useful case study for revealing today’s recurring anti-vaccination strategies.
One popular pamphlet published in 1885 during the smallpox epidemic in Montréal is a great example. Over a century later, we have the benefit of living in a world that has eradicated smallpox using a vaccine. Yet in the past, smallpox vaccination was hotly contested, despite the evidence in favour of its effectiveness.
Although modern arguments have focused on the false claim that vaccines cause autism, historic arguments were much more varied in their allegations of infections from the smallpox vaccine. The anti-vaccinationists of the past claimed that vaccination caused a full spectrum of diseases, from smallpox itself to syphilis, typhoid, tuberculosis, cholera and “blood-poisoning.”
Last but not least is an appeal to authorities that help legitimize the anti-vaccination argument. The modern anti-vaxxer movement has an abundance of these, led by Andrew Wakefield, the now discredited former physician who originally published the fraudulent study linking the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine to autism.
But the anti-vaccination movement has had a long tradition of promoting the words of “experts” who support their narrative. In the 19th century, vaccination debates often brought in a similar small circle of medical men who spoke against vaccination, calling it a “filthy” and “evil” practice. Although their arguments were refuted by many in the medical community, they gained a lasting mantle of prestige amongst anti-vaccinationists as the authoritative voices that offered the “proof” that was needed.