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The arguments against vaccines haven't changed in 100 years

A baby is examined in 1915.
A baby is examined in 1915.
Archive Images/Getty
Phil Edwards is a senior producer for the Vox video team.

Vaccine deniers have been making a lot of headlines in recent years — throwing around junk science, preventing kids from getting immunized, and helping bring back once-vanquished diseases like the measles.

But the anti-vaccine movement isn't new. It has existed in various forms ever since Edward Jenner first used cowpox for smallpox immunity in 1796. Over the years, science has overwhelmingly favored the use of vaccines to help immunize against disease — but that hasn't kept anti-vaccine activists from using the same bad arguments for many decades.

Indeed, it's striking how much this anti-vaccine newspaper ad from 1919 sounds like the arguments of modern-day anti-vaccine groups like Jenny McCarthy's Generation Rescue. Let's count the similarities:

1) Vaccine deniers have long appealed to scientific authority


Vaccinopathy definitions lend it a sense of legitimacy. (Chronicling America)

The central irony of vaccine denial is that an anti-science movement often couches its arguments in scientific terms.

Generation Rescue's modern-day vaccination information page is dotted with appeals to CDC data and other medical information — though it omits crucial context in order to mislead.

The 1919 Vaccinopathy pamphlet ad did the same thing, using seemingly technical terms to lend it an air of authority. Even the made-up word "vaccinopathy" hints that vaccines might be as bad as the diseases they purport to prevent. The ad urges readers to question their doctor on these matters: "Who is your physician? What is vaccinopathy? Is his creed or method of curing and preventing disease the infliction of vaccinosis?"

2) Vaccine deniers have long focused on (rare) side effects

Warning to Mothers

A warning to mothers. (Chronicling America)

Nowadays, Generation Rescue likes to hype the side-effects of vaccination, even though those are exceedingly rare. The 1919 pamphlet ad did the same, stating that blood can be "tainted" when filled with a "pus-vaccine" that's intended to revolt readers.

3) Vaccine deniers have long suggested there's a scam going on

A call to action.

A call to action. (Chronicling America)

Generation Rescue presents, without a lot of context, the 1983 and 2014 immunization schedules for children — which have changed over the years. The insinuation here is that something shady is going on, or that changing policies cast doubt on their validity.

The 1919 ad did the same thing. The call to action exhorts readers to get an official "exposé" that purports to reveal the mysterious plans of pro-vaccination doctors.

Though they are almost a hundred years apart, both documents use the same rhetoric, style, and dubious logic. The older language may be more explicit, but the techniques have stayed the same.

Vaccinopathy advertisement.

The full "Vaccinopathy" ad. (Chronicling America)

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