A warning to anti-vaxxers from history

In my collection of vintage books going back three hundred years is a leather-bound volume containing editions of The Saturday Magazine from the year 1840 – and one story carries a warning to anti-vaxxers.

You may think that the movement against vaccination is a relatively modern phenomenon. But it seems that ill-founded suspicion of immunisation has existed for a long time. In this 1840 book of mine, it details how vaccination was introduced to the British province of Ceylon (now the independent country of Sri Lanka) in 1802.

This was about forty years after British doctors first realised that the best way to immunise somebody against the terrible disease of smallpox was to infect them with something called cowpox. This discovery resulting from observing that milkmaids who were exposed to cowpox didn’t seem to develop smallpox. And in 18th century England, smallpox was a massive killer – leaving those who contracted it covered in disfiguring fluid-filled pustules.

Edward Jenner – developed the smallpox vaccination

A doctor called Edward Jenner developed the smallpox vaccine in 1798 and just four years later, it was brought to Ceylon. This large island colony off the southern coast of India had been ravaged for centuries by smallpox. So much so, that according to The Saturday Magazine, the natives would flee their villages and homes to get away from it.

Yet within five years, thanks to the arrival of the vaccination, smallpox was all but eradicated. Something that anti-vaxxers should note. A disease that nobody thought could ever be defeated was made a thing of the past within a few short years.

READ MORE: How to talk like a Victorian Londoner

But then the people of Ceylon became complacent. After about 1819, they stopped vaccinating their children thinking the disease was a thing of the past. But it then it struck back – even worse than before. As the magazine describes in very 19th century Victorian language!

This, however, was a fatal calm for parents had neglected to use for their offspring that means of protection which had secured themselves from the ravages of this frightful disorder, and in July 1819, the smallpox returned with redoubled violence. As security had begotten apathy, so now, danger and death frightened the poor Ceylonese into using the easy alternative, vaccination.

So please note anti-vaxxers that when the Ceylonese stopped vaccinating, smallpox returned. Much as we’re now seeing measles making an unwelcome comeback. The Saturday Magazine warned those who had not vaccinated to get on with it.

“We give these simple facts of history without one word of comment, believing that they must tend to ally the fears of those who have already sheltered their home, under this great discovery, and hoping that they will excite the fears of those who, from whatever cause, still neglect to use the proper means of safety to themselves and others, means by which can do no harm…”

In his own lifetime, Jenner was regarded as a hero. What on earth would he make of anti-vaxxers today in developed countries who refuse to protect their children and put them at risk of diseases we thought had been conquered?

The 1840 edition of The Saturday Magazine in my library
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