As the 20th century wore on, meanwhile, many Americans began to have an increased respect for doctors and organized medicine, said James Colgrove, a professor of sociomedical sciences at Columbia and the author of State of Immunity: The Politics of Vaccination in Twentieth-Century America.
Then, in 1998, British physician Andrew Wakefield published a study of 12 children that purported to suggest a link between the MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) vaccine and autism. The study has been thoroughly discredited — Wakefield was found to have manipulated his data and lost his medical license, and subsequent research has found no link between vaccines and autism. But as Julia Belluz reported at Vox, media outlets covered the study with excessive enthusiasm and credulity, helping fan the flames of anti-vaccine sentiment.
The Wakefield paper also came out just as the internet was coming into wider use, Colgrove said. It was an unfortunate historical coincidence — a new piece of misinformation being released “at precisely the moment when this new medium for the spread of misinformation and conspiracy theories was really taking off.”
Wakefield’s discredited research and the media coverage and online conversation around it helped kick off the contemporary anti-vaccine movement. That movement grew throughout the 2000s thanks to a combination of factors, including a rise in anti-government sentiment and the emergence of a social media environment that tends to amplify conflict and controversy, Colgrove said.