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"Matter of Vigorous Debate"

Author discusses anti-vaccination movement
By Brian Ahern

The history of America’s anti-vaccination movement, current vaccination concerns and Homer Simpson were the topics of discussion at Wednesday night’s university forum lecture.

Robert Johnston, a University of Illinois history professor and author of the book “The Radical Middle Class,” took to the podium at the auditorium in the Barrick Museum to challenge conventional wisdom about anti-vaccinationists, while evoking the knowledge of a very popular cartoon character.

“Tonight I’m going to call on Homer Simpson to begin the stories here,” Johnston said, with giggles bouncing throughout the audience.

He then described an episode of the Simpsons in which Homer discovered a vast conspiracy involving the flu vaccine and its heightening of the impulse to shop during the holiday season.

Johnston cited the episode, which aired in 2000, as an example of how vaccination fears have reemerged in the political spotlight in recent times.

Even timelier, said Johnson, is the controversy currently brewing in Texas, where Governor Rick Perry issued an executive order requiring all middle-school aged girls to receive a vaccine to protect them from the sexually transmitted Human Papoloma Virus.

“It’s something that is very much a matter of vigorous debate,” Johnston said, not going into detail about which side of the issue he stood on.

Other concerns over mandatory vaccinations have been felt by those involved with the military.

“We have a whole set of other issues including soldiers in the Iraq War refusing to get Anthrax vaccines,” he said. “The case against Anthrax vaccines seems to be strong.”
He referenced the near closing of an Anthrax vaccine producer due to health concerns and questioned the quality of the vaccine the soldiers were being forced to take.

“The government itself is perfectly willing to admit that the Anthrax vaccine is a quite crude vaccine,” he said. “The question is whether military personnel should be unwilling subjects of a medical experiment.”

But understanding current controversies about vaccination is greatly increased by putting them in an historical context, Johnston said.

“There is a very long tradition of concern and skepticism and activism against vaccines,” he said. “It’s a kind of history that might be able to tell us how we might deal with these issues today.”

Although conventional wisdom often labels those opposed to vaccination as irrational and dangerous, Johnston argued their points were often “wise and insightful.”

“You can point to a figure like Gandhi who was a very strong anti-vaccinationist,” he said, adding that along with Gandhi, civil rights leader Frederick Douglass was also vigorously opposed to vaccinations.

Throughout American history, Johnston cited anti-vaccination as a long-practiced tradition. In fact it was so rampant that in 1913 the U.S. was declared the least vaccinated country in the industrial world.

“This was the land of liberty,” he said. “And in America you were to have control over your own body.”

As passionate as the movement was up until the beginning of the 20th century, it remained dormant until 1982.

It was that year when “Vaccine Roulette” was released, a documentary that worked to expose the danger faced by children who had been vaccinated for whooping cough. Middle-class parents became outraged, the government was criticized and the anti-vaccination movement had a new breath of life that would lead it to the Simpsons and the citizens of Texas.

But Texas hasn’t been the only state worried about forced vaccination. Nevada, partly due to its significant amount of Libertarian beliefs, has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the country.

As the lecture came to an end, a man in the audience offered a solution that would ease most concerns over the danger of vaccinations.

“I think we’d all probably jump on board and be a little easier if the first people to get the vaccines publicly injected it,” he said. “They would be the President, the Vice President and members of Congress.”