Research uncovers historical anti-vaccination across Scotland

Photo credit: University of Dundee

A Ph.D. A University of Dundee student has found new evidence showing how vaccine reluctance – often viewed as a modern phenomenon – can be traced back more than 150 years in Scotland.

According to the World Health Organization, hesitation about vaccines is one of the top ten global health threats alongside antibiotic resistance and climate change. A growing “anti-Vaxx” movement has resulted in 30% more measles cases being reported worldwide and a number of countries, including the UK, no longer being measles-free.

Discredited studies, social media, and celebrity skepticism have all been blamed for falling adoption rates, but the origins of vaccine delay go back more than two centuries, according to Sylvia Valentine, Ph.D. Student at the University’s School of Humanities.

The history of the English anti-vaccination movement, which dates back to the opposition of the medical establishment and the introduction of clergy against smallpox vaccination in 1721, is well documented, but until recently it was widely believed that there was no parallel campaign in Scotland .

“My work builds on that of other researchers and shows that resistance to vaccination was not limited to England,” said Sylvia. “Compulsory smallpox vaccination came into force in Scotland in 1864, and within a few decades the anti-vaccination sentiment became widespread.

“A myriad of factors, including nationalism, vegetarianism, religious doctrine, and the defense of civil liberties, have helped fuel the movement and bring together anti-vaccines from diverse backgrounds.

“While modern technology provides the opportunity to connect with a global audience, and MMR is the primary goal of the movement today, the goals, beliefs, and objections of 21st century anti-vaccines share many parallels with their Victoria and Edward ancestors. “

The British government introduced smallpox vaccination in England and Wales in 1840 to reduce working-class child mortality and made infant vaccination compulsory in 1853. Compulsory vaccination in Scotland came into effect 11 years later.

Anti-vaccine lobbying, coupled with the level of non-compliance in England, eventually led to the establishment of a Royal Commission in Vaccination. Its 1896 report did not recommend repeal, but a clause was introduced to allow for a conscientious objection. The law did not extend to Scotland, however, and this differential treatment met with widespread anger north of the border

“This omission was a call to the Scottish anti-vaccines, whose efforts up to this point have been arbitrary,” continued Sylvia. “The Scottish Anti-Vaccination League was formed in early 1896 to coordinate lobbying activities and provide legal advice and support to those charged with non-vaccination.”

Sylvia has uncovered reports of leading anti-vaccination campaigners touring lectures encouraging Scots to challenge candidates for election to public office for their attitudes towards compulsory vaccination. She has also examined newspaper reports from 1896 onwards and found numerous indications of riots asking potential MPs from all parties for their views on the issues, with local anti-vaccination societies making recommendations as to which candidates should be supported.

People from all walks of life flocked to the cause, and many anti-vaccines of the 19th century were involved in spiritual movements or alternative medicine. The fact that the smallpox vaccine was made with cowpox lymph also meant the Scottish Anti-Vaccination League found a ready-made audience among animal rights activists.

“Many anti-vaccines were vegetarians, moderators, or held non-conformist religious beliefs,” continued Sylvia. “The Scottish Anti-Vaccination League Secretary was a vegetarian who found the use of calf lymph for vaccination unacceptable. It is noteworthy that the Dundee Anti-Vaccination Society held meetings in the Vegetarian Cafe on the city’s high street in the late 1890s .

“Many believed that public health measures and sanitation improvements would remove the miasma seen as a source of disease. More natural treatments for smallpox victims were preferred, particularly water healing, which was offered in a number of hydropathic facilities across Scotland .

“Parents on both sides of the border strongly refused to learn from the government and local authorities how to raise their children. Many believed it was morally wrong to infect their children with this animal matter that they sincerely possible held permanent harm or the death of a loved one.

“Religion also drove the movement. The Swedenborgian, or New Church, founded churches in England and Scotland, often in anti-vaccination hotspots. Swedenborgians believed that the purity of human blood was never contaminated by animal matter and a minister who spoke at a number of anti-vaccination meetings in Scotland, has been prosecuted no fewer than four times for refusing to vaccinate his children. “

Case study

On March 26, 1888, a Glaswegian carpenter named Duncan McCorkindale wrote to the city’s Evening Post to complain that it was not a recent trial that resulted in his imprisonment.

While most people would welcome a lack of media interest in their handling of the law, McCorkindale wanted to raise awareness of his plight. After refusing to vaccinate his child against smallpox, which was a criminal offense, he was fined 10 shillings and had to pay £ 1 in legal fees. Without the means, McCorkindale “had to go to jail to be treated like a criminal – no distinction was made between a respectable citizen and thieves and house breakers.”

McCorkindale stated that the death of one of his older children a few days after being vaccinated was his motivation for refusing to comply with the Scottish Vaccination Act of 1863.

A few months before McCorkindale was arrested, another skeptical parent, Robert Barr, had been charged with the same offense. As a man of good means, Barr avoided jail by paying the fine McCorkindale couldn’t afford, and anti-vaccines played a big part in ensuring that the law punished ordinary Scots who had no right to appeal that vaccination is a question of conscience.

Another parliamentary bill was required by 1907 to clarify legislation regarding conscientious objection. A bill was introduced to ensure that the new law would also apply in Scotland. Vaccination rates in Scotland fell from high compliance levels of around 95% in the late 1860s to below 40% by 1918. Despite the London-based National Anti-Vaccination League (NAVL), Scottish anti-vaccines continue to campaign for full repeal one became less active in equating with the rest of Britain and seemed to please most Scots.

A Brief History of Vaccine Objections, Vaccine Cults, and Conspiracy Theories, provided by the University of Dundee

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