The movement of anti-vaccers: taking humanity back 200 years

Vaccine 2018 India

UNICEF/Dhiraj Singh A health worker immunizes a pregnant woman inside at health center in Aurangabad, India.

This article was exclusively written for the Sting by Ms. Diana-Elena Nistor, a sixth year medical student at Carol Davila University of Medicine and Pharmacy in Bucharest, Romania. She is affiliated to the International Federation of Medical Students Associations (IFMSA), cordial partner of The Sting. The opinions expressed in this piece belong strictly to the writer and do not necessarily reflect neither IFMSA’s nor The European Sting’s view on the topic.


The first vaccine ever used was in 1796, when Edward Jenner decided to take material from cowpox pustules to provide protection against smallpox. Two hundred years later, after various improvements of the method, smallpox was eradicated. This is one of the greatest medical achievements of public health.

Edward Jenner’s success was followed by Louis Pasteur’s rabies vaccine in 1885. After that, rapid progress led to the development of vaccines against diphtheria, tetanus, cholera, plague, and more by the 1930s.

Anti-vaccination movements have always been around. Although vaccination saved millions of lives over the last two hundred years, the opposition has never ceased to doubt it.

In England, Edward Jenner’s experiment was met with criticism, fear, and protest, that worsened after the mandatory vaccine policies of the government. The citizens showed immediate resistance, strengthened by the fact that vaccine refusal was punished with penalties. Anti-vaccers leagues and rallies led to the development of a commission that would study vaccination. Their result was clear: vaccination did offer protection against smallpox; however, it was followed by removal of penalties for failure to vaccinate and included a “conscientious objector” clause, so that opponents could obtain an exemption certificate.

An international controversy over the safety of the DTP (Diphtheria, Tetanus, and Pertussis) erupted in the 1970s, when anti-vaccers claimed that DTP is related to neurological conditions. This led to a decreased vaccination rate and three epidemics of pertussis (whooping cough).

The MMR (Measles, Mumps, and Rubella) vaccine faced its own controversy, in 1998, when British doctor Andrew Wakefield published his suspicion of a possible connection between MMR vaccine and autism. The article was a fraud and Wakefield was struck from the medical register in Great Britain, with evidence that parents who believed the vaccine had harmed their children paid him to falsify data. Even though no study found a link between the vaccine and autism, it is still one of the greatest fears of the anti-vaccers.

Wakefield’s fake article hits Europe in 2018, the year with an unprecedented wave of sickness and death caused by measles, a disease entirely preventable, that was thought to be “eliminated”.  With so many parents afraid to vaccinate their children, the herd immunity (indirect protection of the ones that cannot become immune to contagious diseases due to medical reasons) is severely reduced. It occurs when a large percentage of a population has become immune to an infection, naturally (after infection) or artificially (after vaccination).

An important role in today’s catastrophe is played by the internet, the place where anyone can have an opinion and everyone can choose what to believe. Anti-vaccer movements exist since forever, but the internet brought together all the confusions and the insecurities of parents all over the world.

Today’s biggest ethical question is: are legal exemptions still justified in the times of reaching herd immunity? Health professionals struggle to combat the anti-vaccination movement with all of their resources,including intense social media activity.

About the author

Diana-Elena Nistor is a sixth year medical student at „Carol Davila” University of Medicine and Pharmacy in Bucharest, Romania. She had the opportunity to do an Erasmus year in Perugia, Italy. Also, during the summer between her fourth and fifth year she followed King’s College London Summer School’s courses. She is interested in global health, and her long term goal is to raise awareness about subjects such as vaccination, use of antibiotics and the importance of screening in various pathologies. She consider publishing this article would be a great step towards that goal.

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