Yet again, a news report from the past to remind us that the issues making the papers today are by no means new. On 25 May 1871, in the midst of a smallpox epidemic, the Brighton Gazette published a short article about the ‘vaccination controversy’. ‘We find,’ it states, ‘numerous persons, moving in respectable society, fined for not having their children vaccinated…On the other hand we are assured that the visitation of small-pox in the metropolis has been greatly increased in virulence through persons being unwisely induced to avoid vaccination.’ Then as now, it seems, there were people who believed the risks of vaccination were greater than the risks of disease itself.
[Transcription] ‘We are disposed to regard the VACCINATION CONTROVERSY as a source of much regret. We find, on the one hand, numerous persons, moving in respectable society, fined for not having their children vaccinated, and defending themselves by the assertion that vaccination is productive of disease more to be dreaded than the small-pox it is supposed to remedy. On the other hand we are assured that the visitation of small-pox in the metropolis has been greatly increased in virulence through persons being unwisely induced to avoid vaccination. In a matter of such importance it is a pity that steps are not taken by the highest authorities to arrive at suscha decision on the subject as may satisfy the reasonable prejudices against inoculation, and remove a question so important out of the sphere of mere irresponsible pamphleteering.’
Nobody could have doubted the seriousness of smallpox – there were several epidemics in Britain during the 19th century, and thousands of lives were lost. As a result, the smallpox jab was made compulsory in 1853 and, in 1867, further laws were passed to counter growing opposition to mandatory vaccination. There were many reasons for this resistance. Some people objected to the procedure itself or were generally wary of the medical profession. Others refused vaccination on religious grounds or argued that having it forced upon them or their children was unethical. In Leicester, where opposition was particularly strong, the vaccination programme was dropped in favour of isolating individual cases and improving hygiene and sanitation. Death rates fell significantly.
Smallpox has been eradicated in the UK and the vaccine hasn’t been used in this country since the 1970s, but debates about the safety and value of mass immunisation have not become a thing of the past. No doubt reports of today’s dilemmas will make interesting reading for historians of the future.
Kate Elms, Brighton History Centre