But there’s a long history of opposition to childhood vaccination, from when it was introduced in England in 1796 to protect against smallpox. And many of the themes played out more than 200 years ago still resonate today.
For instance, whether childhood vaccination should be compulsory, or whether there should be penalties for not vaccinating, was debated then as it is now.
Throughout the 19th century, anti-vaxxers widely opposed Britain’s compulsory vaccination laws, leading to their effective end in 1907, when it became much easier to be a conscientious objector. Today, the focus in Australia has turned to ‘no jab, no pay’ or ‘no jab, no play’, policies linking childhood vaccination to welfare payments or childcare attendance.
Of course, the methods vaccine objectors use to discuss their position has changed. Today, people share their views on social media, blogs and websites; then, they wrote letters to newspapers for publication, the focus of my research.
Many studies have looked at the role of organised anti-vaccination societies in shaping the vaccination debate. However, “letters to the editor” let us look beyond the inner workings of these societies to show what ordinary people thought about vaccination.
Many of the UK’s larger metropolitan newspapers were wary of publishing letters opposing vaccination, especially those criticising the laws. However, regional newspapers would often publish them.
As part of my research, I looked at more than 1,100 letters to the editor, published in 30 newspapers from south-west England. Here are some of the recurring themes.
Smallpox vaccination a gruesome affair
In 19th century Britain, the only vaccine widely available to the public was against smallpox. Vaccination involved making a series of deep cuts to the arm of the child into which the doctor would insert matter from the wound of a previously vaccinated child.
These open wounds left many children vulnerable to infections, blood poisoning and gangrene. Parents and anti-vaccination campaigners alike described the gruesome scenes that often accompanied the procedure, like this example from the Royal Cornwall Gazette from December 1886:
Some of these poor infants have been borne of pillows for weeks, decaying alive before death ended their sufferings.
Conspiracy theories and vaccine cults
Side-effects were so widespread many parents refused to vaccinate their children. And letters to the editor show they became convinced the medical establishment and the government were aware of the dangers of vaccination.
If this was the case, why was vaccination compulsory? The answer, for many, could be found in a conspiracy theory.
Their letters argued doctors had conned the government into enforcing compulsory vaccination so they could reap the financial benefits. After all, public vaccinators were paid a fee for each child they vaccinated. So people believed compulsory vaccination must have been introduced to maximise doctors’ profits, as this example from the Wiltshire Times in February 1894 shows:
What are the benefits of vaccination? Salaries and bonuses to public vaccinators; these are the benefits; while the individuals who have to endure the operation also have to endure the evils which result from it. Health shattered, lives crippled or destroyed – are these benefits?
Conspiracy theories went further. If doctors knew vaccination could result in infections, then they knew children died from the procedure. As a result, some conspiracy theorists began to argue there was something inherently evil about vaccination. Some saw vaccination as “the mark of the beast”, a ritual perpetuated by a “vaccine cult”. Writing in the Salisbury Times, in December 1903, one critic said:
This is but the prototype of that modern species of doctorcraft, which would have us believe that their highly remunerative invocations of the vaccine god alone avert the utter extermination of the human race by small-pox.
For many, the issue of compulsory vaccination was directly related to the rights of the individual. Just like modern anti-vaccination arguments, many people in the 19th century believed compulsory vaccination laws were an incursion into the rights enjoyed by free citizens.
By submitting to the compulsory vaccination laws, a parent was allowing the government to insert itself into the individual home, and take control of a child’s body, something traditionally protected by the parent. Here’s an example from the Royal Cornwall Gazette in April 1899:
[…] civil and religious liberty must of necessity include the right to protect healthy children from calf-lymph defilement […] trust […] cannot be handed over at the demand of a medical tradesunion, or tamely relinquished at the cool request of some reverend rural justice of the peace.
What can we learn by looking at the past?
If anti-vaccination arguments from the past significantly overlap with those presented by their counterparts today, then we can learn about how to deal with anti-vaccination movements in the future.
Not only can we see compulsory vaccination laws in Australia could, as some researchers say, be problematic, we can use the history of vaccine opposition to better understand why vaccination remains so controversial for some people.
The link below is to an article that takes a look at the history of Aboriginal massacres in colonial Australia.
In Australia’s first century, from initial convict settlement in 1788 to the post gold rush decades, the economy grew rapidly. And despite all the changes going on, we found that during this time Australia gained its equality edge.
In fact, during roughly the same period (1774 to 1870) the United States experienced a steep increase in inequality. So looking at this phase of Australian economic history could teach today’s policymakers some lessons.
In the nineteenth century, Australia enjoyed the fastest rate of GDP growth per worker, between 1821 and 1871 it was about twice that of the US and three times that of Britain. We started to look at data from the 1820s onwards. This was the time when Australia quickly evolved from a colony where convicts were 55% of the labour force to a more conventional “free” economy by 1870.
While both Australia and the United States used forced labour extensively (slaves in the southern US and convicts in Australia), their share of the labour force was much higher in Australia (more than half) than in America (about a fifth). The difference in the two countries’ trajectories on inequality has to do with the timing of the emancipation of forced labour, the duration of their coerced employment and changing economies.
How Australia avoided inequality in the past
In Australia convicts were gradually emancipated following the 1820s. As existing convicts eventually got their freedom, the inflow of new convicts fell sharply after the 1830s (except for Tasmania).
By the 1850s Britain had practically ceased its convict transportation policy. In contrast, the slaves in the American south were used as forced labour for much longer, and emancipated only after the Civil War.
Another key difference between the two countries lies in the fact that while the United States underwent a process of impressive industrial growth, Australia specialised in the export of wool and gold (small scale extraction).
We used a wage to rental ratio to work out income inequality, comparing rental income and land values to workers’ wages. What we noticed is that European settlement in Australia was characterised by labour scarcity and land abundance.
In fact, the ratio of acreage to farm labour rose by a whopping 11.7% per annum between 1828 and 1860 and by 6.3% per annum across the 1860s. This was because land endowments grew very fast after the Blue Mountains were breached in 1815. This trend was also matched by a reduction in the gap between rental income accruing to those who owned land, relative to what unskilled workers were receiving.
Our analysis shows that while land values per acre rose at 2.2% per annum, land rents fell by 0.3% per annum. This difference was driven by the fall in interest rates, because of the partial integration between Australian and British financial markets.
On the other hand, the annual earnings of unskilled labourers soared, pushing the wage-rental rate up. With the end of British transportation policy, the “emancipated” convicts moved up the earnings ranks. They almost doubled their incomes if they remained unskilled, and moved up even higher if they could exploit their skills.
But there is another important reason behind the rise in unskilled workers’ incomes. As Australia did not undergo a process of industrialisation, it did not experience an increased demand for skilled workers, like the US. So the supply of workers kept pace with the demand for skills.
Lessons to learn for today’s inequality
While today’s economic conditions are different, there is something that we can learn from this episode of Australian history. Australia’s experience shows that it’s possible to achieve fast growth, and at the same time, a reduction in inequality.
Between 1910 and 1980 inequality trends have been similar across OECD countries. As these trends were driven by shared shocks, such as the Great Depression and two World Wars, Australia experienced the same inequality.
Income inequality in Australia has been rising since the mid-1990s. At the start of the 21st century, the income share of the richest 1% of Australians was higher than it had been at any point since 1951.
Greater equality obviously can’t be achieved by emancipating convicts now, but policymakers can mimic the same effect by targeting vulnerable segments of society that experience greater disadvantage. For example politicians could improve equality of access to health, education, housing and other services across the country.
More than six decades after the Korean War, a small group of North Korean prisoners of war who made a new life in South America may get a chance to return home as part of a documentary film.
Last weekend marked the anniversary of the last major war in the Korean peninsula. The 1950–1953 Korean War or, in the words of Tessa Morris-Suzuki, the great “hot war” within the Cold War, started when North Korean troops crossed the arbitrarily established 38th parallel and forced their way south. The United Nations Command (UNC), composed of forces from 16 nations, including Australia and New Zealand, joined the South Korean military effort to halt the North Korean advance.
As the war unfolded, both sides soon faced the complicated task of handling prisoners of war (POWs), whose numbers were rapidly expanding. The UNC established several POW camps around South Korea, with the largest on Geoje-do (or Geoje) Island. It is said the camp was a little city within the island where around 170,000 North Korean and Chinese POWs waited, uneasy and fearful.
Negotiating POWs fate
The POWs’ repatriation was indeed a point of fierce debate in the negotiations of the armistice that started a year after the outbreak of the war. Accordingly, the UNC position was to allow North Korean POWs to decide between staying in the south or returning to the north, while North Korea insisted on the return of all POWs.
The Neutral Nations Repatriation Commission (NNRC), with India as umpire, chairman and executive agent, supervised the repatriation of POWs from both sides. Statistics shows that under the operations Little Switch and Big Switch eventually around 83,000 POWs were repatriated to the north, while around 22,000 preferred to remain in the south.
There were, however, 88 POWs — 76 North Korean and 12 Chinese — who declined either option and went to India instead, and then later to Argentina and Brazil.
Decades later, Korean filmmaker Cho Kyeong-duk is trying to preserve their memories in a documentary that reverses their trip, taking them from South America back home to North Korea.
New start a world away
In 2007, I met one of the surviving North Korean POWs who lives in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Kim Kwan-ok was born and raised in Pyongyang. He was 21 years old when the South Korean Army captured him in North Chungcheong province and transferred him to the UN POW camp on Geoje-do. Upon the ceasefire in 1953, Kim decided he could not return to the north, as he feared for his life, yet he could not stay in the south either, because it was not his homeland.
Finding himself without a family, relatives or friends, he decided to leave Korea and restart life elsewhere. Kim remembered sobbing endlessly as the Astoria, the ship that took him and other POWs to India, slowly departed Incheon harbour on 9 February 1954. At that point, he thought his connection to his motherland was truly over.
While in Madras (now Chennai), Kim learnt poultry farming, took a course in photography and practised some sports. Although “free”, he remembered that there was not much to do for the POWs in India. Yet the issue that troubled them more than boredom was their uncertain future.
As the wait became longer, the POWs grew anxious and one day they all marched to remind the authorities of their existence — only to be confronted by guards.
Eventually, a few POWs decided to settle in India. Others returned to North Korea and three went to South Korea. According to Kim, however, most wished to emigrate to the United States. When the option became unlikely, many chose Mexico instead, hoping to remigrate to the US at a later date.
Unfortunately, Mexico declined their request, but Brazil and Argentina agreed to accept Korean POWs. Almost two years after their arrival in India, 55 North Korean POWs embarked to Brazil to start life anew, and in the next year or so 12 followed suit to Argentina.
When the then stateless Kim arrived in Argentina, all he possessed was his youth. With the help of a local Catholic organisation, he found shelter and a job, slowly making his way through a new life.
Consequences of war
When the first South Korean immigrants arrived in Argentina almost a decade later, Kim was at the port to welcome them and helped them get settled. He even served as the first president of the Korean Association in Argentina.
A few other North Korean POWs, especially those in Brazil, took a similar initiative, even when South Korean newcomers tagged them as “the prisoners” or “the communists”. Yet many POWs preferred to quietly blend in to local society and slowly disappear from the eyes and memories of all. They wanted to get away from the trauma of the war and the atrocities witnessed at Geoje-do POW camp. The POWs sought to live free of ideologies and prejudices.
Whether or not the POW participants of this project complete their return home, it is a reminder that the human consequences of any war are carried in the hearts and memories of the people who fought, wherever they end up living.