Amid reports of doubters who (still) believe Covid is fake news, this week we examine the history of public protest and vaccine hesitancy in times of contagion.
Those 3,000 or so people who mingled on Sydney’s streets a while back, protesting against the Covid lockdown, protesting about vaccines – it’s nothing new.
In the early 19th century, Joe Public was getting riled up by the spread of cholera and the seemingly poor response by doctors and authorities. There was similar dissent shown when the UK government sought to make the smallpox vaccine compulsory in 1854. There was an ‘anti-mask’ movement during the Spanish Flu and much stigmatisation of polio victims in the first half of the 20th century.
While the threat of cholera has been eradicated in countries with good drinking water and sanitation, there’s still a lot of it about in parts of Africa and Asia.
Cholera is a severe diarrhoeal disease which, if left untreated, can kill within hours. It is commonly transmitted via food or untreated water, particularly in countries with poor sanitation. Even now if you are travelling to Asia or Africa, your GP will advise getting vaccinated.
And here, dear reader, is where the great divide starts; the inevitable chasm between the majority who accept the science and medical advice and those who don’t. There are those who think the Covid vaccine is a plot to de-populate the planet or a conspiracy to control our minds by implanting microchips. Mine has already succumbed, as you can tell.
The first cholera epidemic (1831) emerged in Russia then somehow moved to Scotland, causing considerable angst and consternation. Just absorb this snippet from Wikipedia and put it in the context of Sydney’s Covid lockdown (and protests).
“A major riot took place in Aberdeen on 26 December 1831, when a dog dug up a dead body in the city. Some 20,000 Aberdonians (two-thirds of the city’s population, although this number has been criticised as an exaggeration), protested against the medical establishment, who they believed were using the epidemic as a body-snatching scheme similar to the Burke and Hare murders of 1828”.
In the summer of 1832, a series of cholera riots occurred in various towns and cities throughout Britain, frequently directed against the authorities, doctors, or both. Of the 72 cholera riots in the British Isles that year, 14 made reference to body-snatchers (“Burkers”).
Burkers were people who believed that medical authorities were acting in co-ordination with the State to purposefully kill and reduce the population (weeding out the poor and weak). Sounds outlandish now, eh?
Despite oral vaccinations being in widespread use, the World Health Organisation (WHO) recorded 499,447 cases of cholera and 2.990 deaths in 2018, spread across 34 countries. About 75% of cholera cases were attributed to Yemen. As the WHO observes, cholera is most likely to re-emerge and spread in countries affected by war and civil unrest and/or where infrastructure has been damaged by natural disasters.
If you roll back 102 years to the Spanish Flu pandemic, it is not hard to uncover instances of public unrest. They ranged from people stigmatising those who had the virus to complaining about having to wear a mask in public.
Historian Humphrey McQueen says mask wearing was strenuously enforced in New South Wales.
“The demand for masks was so extensive that to prevent profiteering, the Commonwealth Government declared butter muslin and gauze to be `necessary commodities’ within proclaimed areas.”
Opponents of mask wearing saw them as breeding grounds for infection or as sapping the community’s ‘vital force’. A ‘Bovril’ advertisement alleged that anti-influenza masks were ‘like using barbed wire fences to shut out flies’.
McQueen said there was widespread support for inoculation throughout the country. By the end of 1919, 25% of people in in New South Wales had received two inoculations against Spanish Flu.
“Melbourne’s socialites reputedly arranged `inoculation parties’ where the guests ‘got the needle’ in turn to slow music and a prize was awarded to the shapeliest arm.”
Vaccine hesitancy is no surprise to David Isaacs, Professor of Paediatric Infectious Diseases, University of Sydney.
Writing in The Conversation, he explored the topic from smallpox through to the Covid vaccine.
“In 1853, concerned by pockets of poor uptake of smallpox vaccine, the British parliament introduced the Vaccination Act, making infant smallpox vaccination compulsory.
“Mandatory vaccination fomented opposition, something we should remember if considering making a modern vaccine mandatory.”
Protests quickly emerged, with more than 80,000 vaccine dissenters marching through Leicester carrying banners, a child’s coffin and an effigy of Jenner.
Eventually, the success of Jenner’s smallpox vaccine silenced the anti-smallpox vaccination movement.
I sometimes look at the smallpox scar on my arm (1955) and wonder why people were so scared of something that could spare you from a disease more contagious than Covid-19, with a 30% mortality rate.
In the first half of the 20th century, the ‘silent killer’, polio (infantile paralysis) swept quickly through the US and other countries.
The US was desperate for a polio vaccine and it got one, but not without an early setback. Virologists Albert Sabin and Jonas Salk, competed to develop the first polio vaccine.
Salk’s vaccine, made from killed polio viruses, was ready for a large clinical trial in 1954.
Five companies applied to mass produce the Salk vaccine, four major pharmaceutical firms and one Californian family firm called Cutter Laboratories. The trial results proved the vaccine worked, so vaccination began in 1955.
But within two weeks, children who received the Cutter vaccine (but not the vaccines made by the four other companies), started to develop paralysis. Of the 200,000 children given the Cutter vaccine, 40,000 developed polio, 200 were paralysed and 10 died.
“The polio vaccination program stalled due to the ‘Cutter Incident’, but the fear of catching polio was so great the public was soon reassured the other vaccines had not caused polio,” Prof Isaacs wrote.
I don’t remember being told this story as a child in the 1950s, lining up in a New Zealand schoolyard for the polio needle. New Zealand was as badly affected as Australia, with five polio epidemics from 1914 to 1954, resulting in many deaths and people my age being left with a lingering legacy.
Polio Australia says there are 400,000 Australian survivors of the childhood polio epidemic. At its peak between 1944 and 1954, the virus killed 1000. The highly contagious virus, spread via faeces and nasal mucous, resulted in poor people and those living in overcrowded situations being stigmatised. Then as now, outbreaks were dealt with by closing schools, borders and public facilities like swimming pools. Victims were quarantined and newspapers published a daily tally of polio cases and deaths.
Prof Isaacs compares these stories with the public concern which arose in 2020 about the Covid vaccines, primarily because of the risk of blood clots. He concludes with the ‘greater good’ argument.
“In Australia, a concentration on individual risk at a single point in time ignores the benefits to the community of widespread vaccine uptake.
“History tells us the public can tolerate risk of harm from vaccines when the severity of the disease warrants the risk.”
I don’t know about you, but my second AZ shot is due tomorrow. I’ll run the risk.
The Cutter incident