History of the anti-vaccine movement

Very well reviewed by Dr. D, also at City Journal.

The world’s children are, taken as a whole, the healthiest who have ever lived, in no small part thanks to immunization against the common infectious diseases of childhood that, not so long ago, caused misery, morbidity, and death. In my own case, I suffered mumps, measles, chicken pox, and whooping cough. I remember them all (and can still feel my painful swollen parotid glands in my mind’s soma). I came through unscathed, but my best friend, from whom I was inseparable, contracted polio in the months immediately before the introduction of immunization against it. He was paralyzed from the waist down.

No child today need experience these diseases. Surely this is an unequivocal example of progress, but strangely enough, many people are highly suspicious of the triumph of preventive medicine. It is as if they had lost all historical memory and could not imagine that things were ever any different. We are now so safe that all hazard appears anomalous to us, a deviation from nature’s normal course. It must be someone’s fault.

In his eloquent and bracing book, Paul Offit, an expert on child immunization, traces the intellectual—or perhaps I should say the emotional—history of the modern anti-vaccination movement and its consequences. If progress in preventive medicine has been remarkable, so in its own way has been the persistence of prescientific and even anti-scientific thought in modern society.

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