By Allyson M. Poska
In this essay, Allyson M. Poska, a 2017-18 CAORC NEH Senior Research Fellow, discusses the parallels between an 18th-century smallpox outbreak in Mexico and present-day resistance to the measles vaccine in New York City.
During my four months in Mexico City as the CAORC NEH Senior Research Fellow affiliated with the Americas Research Network, I had the fascinating experience of reading the documentation related to the very first vaccinations against smallpox in Mexico at the beginning of the nineteenth century just as an intense debate raged in the US over vaccination during a measles outbreak in New York.
The historical moment that I was investigating began in 1796–97, when a smallpox epidemic ravaged Mexico, particularly indigenous villages, and authorities attempted to control the epidemic by seeking out those infected, mostly children, and removing them from their homes to a building outside of town where they would be quarantined and cared for by women who had already had the disease.
Fearing the removal of their children, parents took extreme measures to hide infected sons and daughters from the authorities (often city councilmen) who came door to door to investigate the state of the epidemic. According to the authorities, parents temporarily hid their children in holes, or rolled them up in carpets that they then hoisted into the rafters during the authorities’ visits, and/or lied to the representatives of the city council who inquired about the health of their children.
For many parents, the last straw was when Mexican authorities decreed that smallpox victims could not be buried in the parish cemetery. They would not sacrifice their children’s souls to governmental imposed health reforms. In fact, in one Indian village, Teutitlán del Valle, mothers actually organized an attack on the hospice to “extract” their children from the building, overwhelming the soldiers who had been stationed to enforce the quarantine. Many were arrested and some of the men involved spent time in jail.
During the next decade, Mexican authorities, aware of Edward Jenner’s use of cowpox to fight against smallpox, sought out the cowpox lymph that would safely provide immunity. However, initial attempts to desiccate lymph and send it Mexico enclosed in glass failed. As a result, some Mexicans were vaccinated, but the procedure was ineffective and, in the process, authorities generated even more distrust of their interventions against smallpox. Thus, when physicians and government officials finally were successful in bringing the smallpox vaccine to many parts of Mexico, many parents staunchly refused to have their children vaccinated.
One day in April, having finished reading the documentation of the rebellious parents of Teutitlán del Valle in Mexico’s National Archive, I returned to my apartment and read the US news. That very day, the New York Times was reporting that some parents in New York were hiding their children’s cases of measles from New York health authorities investigating the measles outbreak ('Monkey, Rat and Pig DNA': How Misinformation Is Driving the Measles Outbreak Among Ultra-Orthodox Jews, New York Times 9 April 2019). Prompted by misinformation, distrust of secular authorities, and conflicts with authorities over other health issues in the community, these parents too had refused to comply with government intervention in the epidemic.
From one perspective, as a historian I might fall back on the well-worn adage that the more things change, the more they stay the same; however, the parallels between the first attempts to convince people to vaccinate their children and current attempts reveal much more than that. Those parallels indicate that opposition to vaccination is grounded in more than being just vaguely “anti-science”. For many parents, then and now, assessments of the efficacy of the vaccine are only one component of the decision to vaccinate their children. People’s relationships with the government and the unwillingness of mothers to relinquish their authority over the health and wellbeing of their children to strangers drove much of the opposition at the beginning of the nineteenth century and today.
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About the Author
Allyson M. Poska is Professor of History at University of Mary Washington. For her 2017-18 CAORC NEH Senior Research Fellowship she traveled to Mexico to carry out the research project, Contested Equality: Smallpox Vaccination in the Spanish Empire (1803–1810).
The CAORC NEH Senior Research Fellowship is made possible thanks to support from the National Endowment for the Humanities’ Fellowship Programs at Independent Research Institutions (FPIRI) program. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.