When Rep. Jim Jordan tweeted “Vaccine mandates are un-American,” the Ohio Republican immediately received a Twitter history lesson.
Commenters pointed out that none other than General George Washington of the Continental Army required smallpox inoculations for all his troops as a yearslong epidemic of the dreaded disease killed off thousands of people across the colonies. Washington’s mandate worked, even if some soldiers had to be held down against their will to be inoculated.
Vaccination mandates — and resistance to them — have been the norm throughout U.S. history, leading to the eradication or dramatic reduction of as many as 14 diseases that once ravaged humanity, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In this episode of History As It Happens, Dr. René Najera of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia discusses the history of vaccination and origins of the modern anti-vax movement at a time when President Biden is mandating vaccines for most of the American workforce.
“We’ve been patient. But our patience is wearing thin. And your refusal has cost all of us,” Mr. Biden said last week in a rebuke to the recalcitrant and reluctant.
As the editor of the History of Vaccines blog, as well as a practicing epidemiologist who led the COVID-19 outbreak response teams in Fairfax County, Virginia, Dr. Najera is not surprised to see millions of Americans resisting the coronavirus vaccine even as the delta variant kills more than 1,000 people per day, almost all of whom are unvaccinated.
“The first group are the ones who are dubious about the vaccine. They are fully vaccinated for other diseases … but then this vaccine comes around and to their eyes, it seems a little too fast, too good, so they are skeptical,” Dr. Najera said.
Other Americans, albeit a small minority, are opposed to all forms of vaccination, so the coronavirus would be no different for them.
In another of Dr. Najera’s anti-vax categories are people who otherwise might be willing to get a shot, but who have been influenced by a tidal wave of misinformation online, spread by hucksters, charlatans and political commentators.
“I call them the showmen. They spread anti-vaccine information. They know it is misinformation, but they are making a buck off it,” Dr. Najera said.
Vaccine resistance started gaining adherents in the 1960s after scientists developed medicine to prevent polio, measles, mumps and rubella. It gained more followers after a documentary aired on network television in 1982 questioning the whooping cough vaccine.
It may have reached its celebrity zenith after Jenny McCarthy touted the fraudulent science of a British doctor named Andrew Wakefield. In a study since retracted, he claimed a link between the measles shot and autism.
Today, as the delta variant kills and infects large swaths of the United States, Dr. Najera said strategies aimed at educating and persuading will prove more effective in increasing vaccination numbers than mocking and shaming.
“Adults like to be treated like adults. And shaming and mocking is something you do between children and teenagers,” the doctor said.
For more of Dr. Najera’s historical perspective on vaccines as well as Washington Times reporter Tom Howell Jr.’s insights into the Biden vaccine mandate plan, listen to this episode of History As It Happens.