On April 2, 2008, actress, model, and former Playboy Playmate Jenny McCarthy appeared on Larry King Live and declared to the world that vaccines had caused her son, Evan’s, autism. Almost instantly she became the public face of the anti-vaccination movement; a movement that has brought ridicule, scorn, and even calls for civil and criminal liability.
That the anti-vaccination movement is at least partially responsible for the current measles outbreak is beyond dispute. Measles, considered all but eradicated in the United States as recently as 2000, according to Think Progress, was making a resurgence prior to the 2014-2015 outbreak, thanks to growing number of parents choosing not to vaccinate their children.
However, oppositions to vaccines is neither new, nor limited to fans of Jenny McCarthy. In fact, according to History of Vaccines, opposition to vaccinations in humans goes back at least to the early 1800s.
The Early 1800s – The Beginnings
Once pioneering English physician Dr. Edward Jenner worked out the relationship between cowpox (a cattle disease) and smallpox (a fatal disease in humans), he began inoculating humans with cowpox in order to protect them against smallpox, he became the first physician to understand and proliferate vaccinations, according to The Jenner Museum.
Almost immediately, according to History of Vaccines, opposition to Jenner’s methods sprang up in the English populace.
“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 who had been vaccinated about a week earlier. Some objectors, including the local clergy, believed that 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.”
The English government began mandating vaccines, in 1853, and that brought about further opposition to vaccines, mostly from people who were concerned with the idea of a government forcing them to have foreign substances injected into their bodies.
“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 the mandatory laws, and numerous anti-vaccination journals sprang up.”
The 1910s – The Raggedy Ann Component
Some time in 1915, 13-year-old Marcella Gruelle was given a series of smallpox vaccination shots at her New York City public school, according to Johnny Gruelle, Creator of Raggedy Ann and Andy, by Patricia Hall. The vaccinations were given to her with neither her parents’ consent, nor their knowledge, which was commonplace at the time. Over the next several months, she died a slow and agonizing death, finally succumbing to her disease on November 8, 1915.
Her heartbroken father, childrens author and inventor of the Raggedy Ann doll, Johnny Gruelle, blamed his daughter’s death on the unwanted vaccination, and became an outspoken opponent of vaccines — particularly, vaccines without parents’ consent.
Although not originally intended as such, for a time the Raggedy Ann doll became a symbol of the anti-vaccination movement. Urban legends would spring up that the limp, lifeless body of the doll, with its attendant red markings, was a symbol of Marcella’s death from the an unwanted smallpox vaccination (a claim that doll-collecting blog Doll Kind denies).
The 1980s and 1990s – The Vaccination Roulette Controversy and the Autism Connection
In 1982, a Washington, D.C. television station aired a documentary with the ear-tickling title “Vaccine Roulette,” according to The New York Times. The documentary noted that a number, described by the Times as “a tiny percentage,” of infants given the D.T.P. (Diptheria, Tetanus and Pertussis) vaccine had suffered reactions to the vaccine; reactions that included convulsions and brain damage.
“By playing up the perils of D.T.P., while minimizing the seriousness of pertussis, the documentary ignited a grass-roots movement of alarmed parents — some suspecting that their children had been damaged by D.T.P., others concerned by the ever growing number of vaccines being recommended by their pediatricians.”
Perhaps the most famous, and most damning, source of anti-vaccination sophistry came in the form of a study, released in 1998, by British researcher Andrew Wakefield. In the study, Wakefield claimed a link between vaccines and autism — and vaccine opponents ran with it. However, the study has been discredited, according to Huffington Post; further, Wakefield was shown to have falsified his data, and he’s since been stripped of his medical license.
2015 and Beyond
Despite confusion, misinformation, or outright hysteria about vaccinations, vaccines are generally safe, and the benefits far outweigh the risks; at least, that’s the claim made by the Food and Drug Administration.
Regardless, some parents, rightly or wrongly, do not want their children vaccinated.
The problem with vaccinating vs. not vaccinating is that it puts two competing civil liberties into conflict with one another: the right of one set of parents not to have medical care forced upon their children vs. the right of another set of parents to not have their children exposed to dreaded diseases — diseases that could be easily eradicated — via the unvaccinated children of the first group.
Currently, this conflict is playing out in the hearts and minds of both groups via impassioned pleas from parents, encouragement from the president, and even a concerted campaign of shame and ridicule. Depending on how much worse the 2014-2015 measles outbreak gets, it may yet play out in Congress or in the courts.
Regardless of how this conflict shakes out, however, one thing is clear: opposition to vaccines is as old as vaccines themselves; Jenny McCarthy is not to blame.