- Review Essay:A Shot in the Dark. Is it time to shine a new spotlight on antivaccination?
For many, the vaccine skeptic Jenny McCarthy personified the heroic patient-consumer in the American marketplace. In her wellpublicized venture, McCarthy valiantly challenged the medical establishment, conventional wisdom, and she championed alternative approaches to treatment. She promoted the idea that vaccines cause autism and that chelation therapy helped cure her son of autism. Yet, the fact that she empowered herself by going onto the internet to discover new treatments that challenged orthodox medical practices ingratiated her to many people.
This isn't altogether new. Both Charles Rosenberg and James Patterson have written about the longevity of religious or populist medical countercultures in the US.1 These "others" or "outsiders" have conflicted with learned medical traditions, and such alternatives may appear and disappear as mainstream medicine selects, refines or rejects them. But new alternatives – or contested medicines – are constantly generated by the limitations and weaknesses of the elite practices they run alongside. McCarthy's high-profile campaign, which has not fully concluded, was of course an example of an alternative to the mainstream, and a recent assemblage of new books, [End Page 288] many of which flow directly from James Colgrove's State of Immunity (2006), position this movement in a larger history of vaccines and immunization. And while the books depart in geographical, temporal, and disciplinary ways, some well-worn tropes are detectable.2
Karen L. Walloch's The Antivaccine Heresy exposes readers to early wrangling over vaccination – specifically, compulsory vaccination – in Massachusetts. Set against the vivid, shifting backdrop of Progressive Era ferment and, more particularly, a modern paradigm of public health predicated on the rise of bacteriology, Walloch examines the landmark Jacobson v. Massachusetts decision of 1905, which upheld a state statute mandating vaccination. It established a "broad and sweeping state authority to compel citizens to undergo medical treatment in the interest of public health" (2). Many of the characters involved believed "they were fighting for a fundamental right to preserve individual health choices against a corrupt group of medical elitists who sought to establish a state-supported monopoly over medicine" (7). Even more, these individuals – sometimes implicitly, other times, explicitly – advanced views of compulsory vaccination as un-American, anathematic to individual liberty, and a by-product of both "scientific subterfuge and political shenanigans" (9). Yet, Walloch avoids criticism of historical actors holding antivaccination agendas. "It is simplistic and inaccurate," she writes, calmly and soothingly, to describe them as "irrational antigovernment cranks" (216). The lesson she is trying to impart is clear. Resistance to immunization or other medical decisions is neither borne out of singular ignorance, nor is it always a function of a paranoid response to big government and the medical establishment.
In Elena Conis's stimulating book, Vaccine Nation, the fluid negotiation over various vaccines, including those for polio, pertussis and Human papillomavirus (HPV), is on full display. Readers are exposed to a "wildly diverse set of influences, including Cold War anxiety, the growing value of children, the emergence of HIV/AIDS, changing fashion trends, and immigration," that have shaped vaccine acceptance, as well as resistance (2–3). She calls this resistance "vaccine hesitancy," and describes how, beginning in the late 1960s, segments of the broader second-wave feminist movement began to have reservations about American medical authorities and the compulsory nature of vaccination. This type of critique was reflected in popular magazines, including Good Housekeeping, Redbook, and Ladies Home Journal, and represented both fear and doubt related not just to the side...