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QuotationMarkLeft.png If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time. QuotationMarkRight.pngBertrand Russell[1]

Anti-vaccinationists are those who, on principled or on other grounds, are opposed to vaccination. Since the early 19th century, when vaccination became a standard part of public health and medicine, there have been groups and individuals who are most clearly characterised as anti-vaccinationists opposing such policies.

For many anti-vaccinationists, their opinions are a matter of near religious belief, as implied by Brian Deer,[2] citing Russell's teapot. The fact that their views are often an article of faith may explain their resistance to rational arguments to the contrary: vaccination is actually remarkably safe.[3]

Their identity and the repeating arguments, which change little with time or the vaccine discussed (Wolfe and Sharp (2002)),[4] are more interesting as a single topic than as a part of the discussion of infectious diseases and their control.


Time course

Widespread vaccination began in the early 1800s, after Edward Jenner. The public health is a concern of communities, and modern states assert an interest in and authority over certain aspects of it. In the UK, Vaccination Acts of 1840 to 1853 made vaccination compulsory. The British state at that time was neither particularly paternalistic/authoritarian, nor particularly laissez-faire, ergo, this was a response to a matter regarded of grave importance. (Among other elements of the legislation, variolation which is less effective and more hazardous than vaccination, was banned.)

Nothing less important would drive such a change in the relationship of state and subject.

A prompt backlash occurred, which after a time settled on arguments that the vaccine was dangerous or ineffective.

Initial Arguments

From Wikipedia: (hence GFDL) When vaccination was introduced into UK public policy, and adoption followed overseas, both vaccination and inoculation are said to have been condemned by the Protestant and Catholic churches.

Yale president Timothy Dwight IV suggested that vaccination thwarted God's will, saying:

If God had decreed from all eternity that a certain person should die of smallpox, it would be a frightful sin to avoid and annul that decree by the trick of vaccination.

Perhaps he might have been ironic.

British theologian Edward Massey published The Dangerous and Sinful Practice of Inoculation in 1772 and the French had earlier that century banned the practice. Religious views against variolation (termed inoculation then) which preceded vaccination were noted to have effectively triumphed in England by 1730 by Knox before slow general acceptance of its effectiveness in the 1750s[5]. It is not surprising that these views carried on after Jenner's triumph of vaccination in 1796. Several Boston clergymen and devout physicians, believing that "the law of God prohibits the practice," formed an Anti-vaccination Society in 1798. Others went so far as to demand that doctors that carried out these procedures be tried for attempted murder.

Character of anti-vaccinationist material

QuotationMarkLeft.png The subtext to [anti-vaccine] messages is always the same, there are the universal themes of cover up; vaccines as poisonous chemical cocktails; an unholy alliance for profit; the threat of excessive government control; and the back to nature idyll QuotationMarkRight.pngJulie Leask, National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance, Australia.[6]

Anti-vaccination writing, and writing by anti-vaccinationists, on the Web and previously on paper, is characterised by a number of distinct differences from medical and other scientific literature. As well as the underlying thesis to argue and subtle elements of style better analysed by a professor of English or Sociologist, these include:

  • Promiscuous copying and reduplication
  • Tendency (almost uniformity in fact) to be without corrections, even when an initial report is shown to be false
  • Deficiency of references to allow readers, should they wish, to check sources
  • Personal and sometimes scurrilous attacks on individual doctors
  • An underlying acceptance that, 'of course', the whole of medicine is aimed at doing harm, eg (Nolink)
  • Misquoting papers and simply asserting that papers referenced support arguments which in fact they do not, even on cursory reading
  • Just plain lying.
  • Denialist arguments and tactics, such as comparing doctors with antivaccine views with Galileo and quoting Schopenhauer: "All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as self-evident". That this is patently untrue is well discussed and rebutted by Shermer.[7]

In addition, there is a considerable overlap with homeopathy and conspiracy theorists, AIDS denialism, and a subset of the material shades into the appearance of psychosis.

The People

Organisations wholly or largely existing to oppose immunisation



In the UK vaccination was provided free and variolation (inoculation) outlawed from 1840 under the Vaccination Act. The Poor Law Guardians were authorised to vaccinate all infants under their charge - the children of paupers - at public expense. The placing of the service under the Guardians was resisted by the medical profession and made it necessary for Parliament to pass a clarificatory act the following year to establish that the service (unlike all the others provided by the Poor Law) was non-pauperising. Little other resistance or protest is reported at that time but this may be a literature source bias. Dr Knox (an Irish physician) in 1850 observed that "the statistics of the continental physicians, which have been one principal cause of exciting distrust in the public mind, as to the real efficacy of Cow-pock...think there is sufficient statistical information to shew, that by far the most influential cause of the renewed frequency of Small-pox, is the total neglect, or imperfect performance of Vaccination; a fact which, if fully brought before the public, appears highly calculated to restore their confidence in the preventive efficacy of Cow-pock".[8][5] Knox further implied that it was not the vaccination that was the problem, but uncooperative vaccinated patients that did not allow further vaccine to be harvested 8 days later "Great objection is made by some parents, especially in the better classes of society, to allow the matter to be taken at all from the arms of their children". It should be realised that it was not until about 1900 that the risk of transmitting other disease by human to human sourcing of the vaccine resulted in only animal sourcing in most countries. John Badcock had established effective cow culture about 1853 in Brighton. However vaccine safety at the 1 in 1000 level was very acceptable for a disease that killed 1 in 4 before anyone understood the germ theory of disease in the 1860s. The Epidemiological Society managed within 3 years of being formed to introduce in England and Wales in 1853 a system of effectively compulsory infant vaccination against smallpox. This Vaccination Act had the threat of a £1 fine, and imprisonment for repeated failure to comply. An 1855 amendment removed the vaccination service from the jurisdiction of the Guardians to the Board of Health. There is little doubt that resistance had occurred. The Vaccination Act of 1867 extended the age limit for compulsory vaccination to 14 years and introduced cumulative penalties for non-compliance and ability to seize goods. British government thinking was perhaps influenced by the success of the Prussian medical police which produced very high vaccination rates without formal compulsion but much stronger informal compulsion than could occur in Britain without legislation. Resistance however became more than just passive non-compliance given the nature of the penalties and in August 1869 the Anti-Vaccinator in Manchester provided a mouth piece for the movement. After the 1871-2 epidemic, in 1873 a further Vaccination Act tightened the compulsory nature of vaccination in the UK. However it is apparent that immediately after this considerable resistance to the further compulsion occurred. This series of policies had ensured that anti-vaccinationism was absorbed into English working-class culture and the combination with high controversy in the middle classes was a powder keg. Champions of the cause such as Alfred Russel Wallace, the co-discoverer of natural selection ensured wide public debate. In 1885 a Parliamentary Commission sat, following riots in Leicester and reported 7 years later, recommending the abolition of cumulative penalties. A new Vaccination Act in 1898 removed cumulative penalties and introduced a conscience clause, allowing parents who did not believe vaccination was efficacious or safe to obtain a certificate of exemption. The concept of the "conscientious objector" had been present in English law before but this was an early use of it.

The initial aims of the protestors and organisations had thus been achieved.


The defining anti-vaccination movement was in Massachusetts. There were strong interactions with religious groups, which accumulated in the 1901 Boston outbreak. Amongst other measures voluntary free vaccination was initiated, but there were issues with vaccine quality. In December 1901 Massachusetts made vaccination compulsory with refusal subject to a fine or short imprisonment. The controversy lead to the Pfeiffer incident where a dissenting physician who refused vaccination deliberately exposed himself along with vaccinated colleagues who unlike him did not get the illness. In January 1902 supporters of the Anti–Compulsory Vaccination League which included prominent physicians tried to repeal the earlier law. When this failed a land mark law case was tested to Supreme Court level with a 1905 determination that effectively allowed compulsory vaccination.[9]



Name Started Finished Location Membership Unique Proposition References etc Notes
Anti-Compulsory Vaccination League 1866 1880 (segue) Mr. R. B. Gibbs (d. 1871) started it [citation needed]. Revived 1876, President: Rev. W. Hume-Rothery
London Society for the Abolition of Compulsory Vaccination 1880 1896 (segue) Victoria Street, Westminster, London Secretary: Mr. William Young. Adopted The Vaccination Inquirer established 1879 Wikipedia:William Tebb as the organ of the Society.

14 "Vaccination Tracts" 1877 - completed by Dr. Garth Wilkinson in 1879. The movement grew Needs citation and the London Society soon became national so reformed as ...

Wikipedia:National Anti-Vaccination League 1896 (Feb) England
Anti-vaccination Society mid-C19

A rather separate organisation with a general anti-vaccination view but with other more significant characteristics was the Nazi party.

anti-vaccinationists/Organisations table(modern)


Since the reversion from compulsory immunisation in the UK, (... other states...) opposition has continued, albeit at a low level and with the termination of the national organisations set up to oppose compulsion (see their charters).

This opposition could no longer focus upon the abridgment of vicarious individual liberty - the right to determine what is done to one's children - and adopted the arguments that immunisation did not have an effect; that it had an effect but the effect was overwhelmingly bad; or that although immunisation had a beneficial effect that beneficial effect was less than lifelong and produced perverse consequences.

This was a change of ground and toward hypotheses that in theory require evidence and are susceptible to disproof rather than the philosophical questions of the relationship of individuals to state or deity. Accordingly, scientific investigation has been undertaken, and also accordingly each is followed by subsidiary arguments essentially consisting of the serial assertion that each scientific investigation which did not prove one of those hypotheses had been incorrectly designed, conducted, interpreted or punctuated and spelled, or that given another combination of events with those investigated, the central tenet - that a vaccine is responsible for the damage - might be true.

Products containing vaccines against multiple diseases have been a particular issue in recent years. Multi-disease vaccines:

  • allow us to vaccinate children more quickly against more diseases, and thereby making them immune early enough in their lives to be safe at a time when they would otherwise be particularly vulnerable.
  • are cheaper to produce and administer than the same vaccines provided as separate products. It is cheaper and easier to produce and maintain fewer stock items; and fewer jabs are required, so fewer needles, syringes, appointments and so forth are required.

While the arguments in favour of producing such vaccines are overwhelming, many anti-vaccinationists argue that they reduce people's ability to pick ("cherry-pick", some doctors would say) the vaccines they perceive to be of most importance to them. Like most arguments from antivaccinationists, these are usually produced for reasons other than that apparent.


Compulsory vaccination can contribute to the success of immunisation programme. Many believe that the benefits of compulsory vaccination are outweighed by the associated ethical problems. However:

  1. Compulsory vaccination may be effective in preventing disease outbreaks, reaching and sustaining high immunisation coverage rates, and expediting the introduction of new vaccines.
  2. To be effective, compulsory programmes must have a reliable supply of safe and effective vaccines and most people must be willing to be vaccinated. #Allowance of exemptions to compulsory vaccination may limit public backlash.
  3. Compulsory vaccination may increase the burden of ensuring the safety of vaccines.

Specific People

  • Beddow Bayly A seriously mistaken surgeon
  • Charles Creighton
  • Barbara Loe Fisher
  • Jackie Fletcher of JABS
  • Walter Hadwen
  • Archie Kalokerinos
  • Robert Mendelsohn MD (an American, frequent chat-show guest)
  • Neil Miller
  • Viera Scheibner
  • Andrew Wakefield
  • F Edward Yazbak
  • Jeni Barnett - see e.g. Ben Goldacre's Bad Science blog.

(List originally based on one from Wikipedia by Mr John Scudamore, proprietor of the website which as well as discussion of the protocols of the elders of zion and other conspiracies holds a mound of anti-vaccinationist writing. He is, as is apparent to those users of UseNet who have encountered him, an exemplary individual and is reported to live in Devon. His site lays some stress on the illegitimacy of conventional diagnoses of psychosis.)

The State

QuotationMarkLeft.png Vaccination is unique among de facto mandatory requirements in the modern era, requiring individuals to accept the injection of a medicine or medicinal agent into their bodies, and it has provoked a spirited opposition. This opposition began with the first vaccinations, has not ceased, and probably never will. From this realisation arises a difficult issue: how should the mainstream medical authorities approach the anti-vaccination movement? A passive reaction could be construed as endangering the health of society, whereas a heavy handed approach can threaten the values of individual liberty and freedom of expression that we cherish. QuotationMarkRight.png BMJ

Some of the United States in America make no requirement for immunisation, but a legislative requirement for immunisation before admission to school, and another for schooling. An overlap between followers of contemporary anti-vaccinationists and home-schoolers may arise from this.

Australia maintains compulsory immunisation.

See also

Anti-vaccine websites

Websites commenting upon them