If you’re old enough to have a small scar on your upper arm from receiving a smallpox vaccination as a child, congratulations — you’re part of a global, multi-generational effort that, for the first time in human history, eradicated a deadly disease.
Smallpox, which had been around for at least three thousand years, probably killed more human beings than any other disease. The mortality rate, according to the World Health Organization, was appallingly high — about 1 in 3 died. If it didn’t kill you, it was likely to leave deep scarring on your face, or might even render you blind.
I got my vaccination as a student at Washington Elementary School at Baxter Springs, Kansas. On the appointed day, the students assembled in the auditorium in the center of the school, and the vaccine was shot into our arms by a nurse wielding a shiny pneumatic gun. At least that’s the way I remember it. The United States ended mandatory vaccinations for smallpox in 1972, because the disease had been largely beaten.
It is now the only human disease we can talk about in the past tense. The last recorded case of naturally occurring smallpox was in 1977, and in 1980 the WHO declared it eradicated. It now exists only in two government labs, one in the United States and the other in Siberia, and there are pretty good arguments that those samples should be destroyed as well.
Despite the unqualified success of the smallpox vaccine, which dates back to 1796 (yes, you read that right, the numbers aren’t transposed), a fair proportion of the population has always been vaccine resistors. The concerns voiced today by those who mistrust the coronavirus vaccines are disappointingly similar to those who railed against the smallpox vaccine two hundred years ago. These center on personal freedom (sound familiar?), religious objections, fear of science, and mistrust of authority. In the 1800s it was feared that smallpox vaccinations were the work of Satan or would turn people into cows. This past year, moral miscreants and political shills on social media and other platforms baselessly warn, to cite just one example, that coronavirus vaccines contain microchips that somehow interact with 5G wireless towers to control you.
And this is believed not by just a small group of flat-earth eccentrics, but by a substantial number of Americans. Millions of them, in fact. A recent Economist/You Gov poll shows that 1 in 5 Americans believes it likely the government is using COVID-19 vaccines to inject us with microchips in order to track us. This belief is skewed heavily toward white men without college degrees. Republicans were also far more likely to reject vaccination, at 29%, according to the poll, compared to just 4% of Democrats.
That’s unsurprising, given the poisonous rhetoric GOP leaders and right-wing media are spewing at all levels across the country. It would be bad enough if this were just a tactic to appeal to centuries-old ignorance and superstition in order to con the gullible out of their votes, but those sympathetic to these demonstrably false narratives are driving policy that needlessly endangers lives. It’s not just about the vaccines, it’s been about nearly every coordinated government response to control the pandemic, from mask mandates to contact tracing.
Take the Kansas Legislature, for example.
Last summer, when Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly instituted a series of statewide measures to combat the pandemic, including a statewide mask mandate, the GOP-controlled Legislature responded by curtailing her emergency powers and leaving restrictions up to individual counties. Senate Bill 40, which was touted as a bipartisan compromise, meaning surrender by Kelly, effectively gutted the executive power to deal with emergencies. It also made it absurdly easy for parents to launch challenges to local school district mask mandates and other measures they didn’t like, by requiring school boards to have a meeting on a complaint within 72 hours. If the parents didn’t like the result of the meeting, they could force a court hearing within another three days, with courts required to clear their dockets to meet the deadline.
Last week, a Johnson County District Court judge found that provision, as well as the entirety of SB40, unenforceable. Under the canard of giving local government authority to address pandemic issues, the law “actually hobbled local pandemic measures by ensuring that lawsuits would be filed, aided by swift court action,” the judge, David Hauber, wrote. “Many local units of government simply capitulated under the pressure.”
Hauber said the law, which was ostensibly about protecting children, did just the opposite. He criticized the Legislature’s disregard for due process and separation of the branches of government, and called Attorney General Derek Schmidt’s legal arguments “fantastical.” Schmidt, a Republican who in March announced his run for governor, has appealed the decision.
If today’s Kansas Legislature had been in control of any part of the smallpox vaccination effort back in the day, we wouldn’t be debating about what to do with those last two samples frozen away in research labs. We’d still be fighting the disease. Or dead.
The defeat of smallpox is among the most remarkable achievements in human history, and it’s the story of science winning out over ignorance and superstition. An English physician and scientist, Edward Jenner, in 1796 discovered that pricking the skin of individuals with cowpox, a bovine form of smallpox, conferred immunity. His first trial was on an 8-year-boy, James Phipps, the son of his gardener. The inoculation produced fever and some discomfort, but not smallpox, and conferred protection against repeated exposure.
Smallpox vaccination became widespread, and in 1840 the British government began passing laws that made inoculation compulsory. But in the United States, where smallpox had hit the colonies hard and then spread to First Peoples populations, inoculation mandates began earlier. Massachusetts was the first state to require vaccination of the general population, in 1809. Other states soon followed.
But the anti-vaccinationists fought back, here and in England. In addition to fantasies the vaccine would turn people into cows, there were claims that sound strikingly familiar now: the vaccine was a hoax, it wasn’t effective, the risk of injury or death from the inoculation was too great, the death rate from the smallpox had been exaggerated.
In 1905, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the authority of the states to enforce compulsory vaccination laws. Individual freedom is not absolute, the court said, but it did recognize that some individuals could have legitimate reasons for seeking exemptions to compulsory vaccination. The case, Jacobson v. Massachusetts, has been relied on as precedent for mask mandates and other measures during the current pandemic.
Now that COVID-19 cases are on the upswing, due to the Delta variant among unvaccinated populations, it’s time to prepare ourselves for the next round of the pandemic. For counties where vaccination rates are low, the misery created by the virus in Springfield, Missouri, should be a cautionary tale. Those who refuse vaccination are not only endangering themselves, they are endangering the rest of us by helping spread the virus, allowing it to mutate faster, and putting an unbearable strain on hospitals and staff.
It’s time we stopped trying to convince the vaccine hesitant to do the right thing. There’s too much at stake; our resources have already been stretched too thin. We’re all tired of the pandemic, and the thought of having to put up with more restrictions while waiting for a third of the adult population to get their shots is unacceptable. The rational and responsible among us are hostage to the fears and fantasies of those who would have decried Jenner’s breakthrough as the work of Satan.
No, we should not make coronavirus vaccinations compulsory. Let’s not light the fuse on that powder keg. But what we can do is limit the ability of the unvaccinated to spread the virus to others. Want to attend a rock concert, or a baseball game, or eat in a restaurant? Allow those venues to require proof of vaccination. Want to travel by air, take a college class, or just go to your neighborhood grocery? Bring your vaccination card.
Personal freedom is not absolute. It comes with responsibility to the community. That’s why there are speed limits, and stop signs, and laws against lobbing dynamite over your neighbor’s fence. The unvaccinated have the perfect right to believe whatever claptrap they want, but we should not allow them to drag us back into the demon-haunted world of the pre-Enlightenment.