Outbreaks of popular resistance against expert medical advice are a long Anglo-American tradition, and preventative measures like inoculation and vaccination have been recurring targets for us freemen. It will always be a little counter-intuitive to expose a healthy person to potentially harmful substances to keep them from getting a disease they don’t seem to have. It seemed even worse in the case of early inoculation, which involved giving someone a disease like smallpox on purpose in hopes they would get it in a less virulent form and develop some immunity. Sometimes the patient just got sick and died of the “cure.”
One of the most famous populist crusades against the modern medicine of its time was in 1721 when young Ben Franklin and his older brother James went after the smallpox inoculation policy favored by colonial Boston’s ministerial elite. The Massachusetts Historical Society has an excellent online presentation about the controversy, including images of Ben’s pseudonymous essays from the New England Courant. (Historians help me with some less well-known examples).
But historical context only goes so far, and just because some Founder did it, does not necessarily make it right in every case. So quite likely Dr. Andrew Wakefield really did need to be drummed out of the medical profession [original link to AP story no longer works]:
LONDON — The doctor whose research linking autism and the vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella influenced millions of parents to refuse the shot for their children was banned Monday from practicing medicine in his native Britain.
Dr. Andrew Wakefield’s 1998 study was discredited — but vaccination rates have never fully recovered and he continues to enjoy a vocal following, helped in the U.S. by endorsements from celebrities like Jim Carrey and Jenny McCarthy
Wakefield was the first researcher to publish a peer-reviewed study suggesting a connection between autism and the vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella. Legions of parents abandoned the vaccine, leading to a resurgence of measles in Western countries where it had been mostly stamped out. There are outbreaks across Europe every year and sporadic outbreaks in the U.S.
“That is Andrew Wakefield’s legacy,” said Paul Offit, chief of infectious diseases at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “The hospitalizations and deaths of children from measles who could have easily avoided the disease.”
Wakefield’s discredited theories had a tremendous impact in the U.S., Offit said, adding: “He gave heft to the notion that vaccines in general cause autism.”
In Britain, Wakefield’s research led to a huge decline in the number of children receiving the MMR vaccine: from 95 percent in 1995 — enough to prevent measles outbreaks — to 50 percent in parts of London in the early 2000s. Rates have begun to recover, though not enough to prevent outbreaks. In 2006, a 13-year-old boy became the first person to die from measles in Britain in 14 years.
“The false suggestion of a link between autism and the MMR vaccine has done untold damage to the UK vaccination program,” said Terence Stephenson, president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health. “Overwhelming scientific evidence shows that it is safe.”