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As Covid restrictions ease across the UK, can Victorian rumours about vaccines help inform today’s public health policy?

Friday 28 January 2022

The Cow-Pock[28] copy

Anxieties about compulsory vaccines, fake news and conspiracy theories about governments supressing evidence of their dangers, anti-vaccine protests on the streets – fears, misinformation and controversies about vaccines have become widespread during the Covid-19 pandemic.

But all of these were public responses to the 1853 Vaccination Act, when infant vaccination against smallpox was made mandatory. This provoked a considerable backlash, leading to dedicated anti-vaccination leagues to riots and mass demonstrations with banners demanding ‘the repeal of the Vaccination Acts, the curse of our nation’.

New Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded research from the School of Advanced Study at the University of London, in collaboration with Durham University and Bath Spa University, has been tracing the history of public health misinformation alongside an analysis of social media rumours in the UK about Covid-19 and the vaccination programme. The project, Covid Rumours in Historical Context, has found historical precedents for almost all rumours currently circulating.

The project has compared a large sample of tweets from the past two years relating to Covid-19 with a variety of historical sources dating back to the 16th century. These range from the politicising of the Quarantine Act of 1721 following a plague outbreak in Marseilles, when opponents of the Act complained it would undermine traditional English liberties, to Victorian anti-vaccination movements following the 1853 Vaccination Act and further Acts tightening enforcement in 1867 and 1871, when parents who refused infant vaccination against smallpox could be fined or even imprisoned.

As Covid restrictions are relaxed across the UK this week, vaccine strategy will remain a critical part of ongoing public health measures. With a December 2021 report by the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) concluding that booster doses are 88% effective at preventing hospital admissions, and polling suggesting that around a third of the UK population has encountered false or misleading information about the virus, combatting misinformation and encouraging take-up in those yet to receive their jabs will be of vital importance.

Historical attitudes to vaccination and other public health measures can provide invaluable insights about how people have responded to government interventions in the past, which can in turn be highly useful when planning present-day policy or predicting future trends.

Professor Jo Fox, Dean of the School of Advanced Study, University of London, and the project’s Principal Investigator, says: 'Despite the apparent novelty of ‘fake news’ and its online circulation via social media platforms, there is little that is new about these rumours, most of which have their historical precedents. Yet policymakers know little about how and why similar rumours have spread in the past, how previous governments have responded to them, and how successful these efforts were.'

Platforms like Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp have created new digital echo chambers buzzing with fake news and rumours – but does their scale, scope and the speed with which they can circulate make this kind of misinformation a uniquely 21st-century problem, requiring preventative legislation and censorship? Or are conspiracy theories about the pandemic ultimately a product of human psychology, suggesting that legislation should aim to mitigate rumours rather than prevent them altogether?

1853 Vaccination Act making infant vaccination for smallpox compulsory marked a significant expansion of state intervention. It was accompanied by other illiberal public health measures such as the Contagious Disease Acts of the 1860s, where those suspected of being sex workers could be forcibly confined to hospital. Given this context, it is unsurprising that compulsory vaccination was viewed by its opponents as a tyrannical violation of personal freedom.

Exaggerated claims were made by both sides. Opponents suggested that the vaccine not only made people more susceptible to smallpox, but also caused numerous other diseases ranging from eczema to cancer. Meanwhile, unsterilised lancets could pass on deadly bacterial infections and spread blood-borne diseases such as syphilis, while initial, strongly defended claims that the smallpox vaccination conferred lifetime immunity turned out to be false. The reluctance of medical authorities to acknowledge these issues was highly damaging, handing anti-vaccination campaigners a propaganda victory.

The Victorian vaccine debates underscore the importance of transparency in vaccine science and the dangers of supressing rumours, and also show how compulsory vaccination could provoke large-scale backlash. In 1898, the law was amended to allow exemptions for ‘conscientious objector’ parents, and in 1907 compulsory vaccination was effectively ended.

While some aspects of pandemic misinformation may be unique to the 2020s – in particular, the speed, scale and scope of social media rumours – the historical record suggests strong continuities in the way Covid rumours have formed and spread. Repeated scapegoating, anti-elitism, and conspiratorial thinking surrounding pandemic diseases all point to human psychology as the common denominator.

The team’s findings suggest that policies seeking to mitigate rumours and conspiracy theories, rather than preventing them altogether, may have most success in combatting misinformation. As the world cautiously moves towards emerging from Covid-19 in 2022, historical precedents may provide an invaluable guide.

Professor Fox added: 'As we move into the endemic phase of Covid-19, governments need to focus on understanding what drives our desire to consume mis- and disinformation. We do so for very human reasons - and any solution needs to take account of this. There is a place for legislation, but it’s only part of the answer – and it’s vital to foster critical digital literacy as part of a longer-term solution.'


Notes for editors

  1. For further information please contact Maureen McTaggart, Media and Public Relations Officer, School of Advanced Study, University of London.
  2. Covid Rumours in Historical Context is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. The project team is Professor Jo Fox (University of London), Professor James Smith (Durham University), Dr David Coast (Bath Spa University), Marty Steer (University of London), Kunika Kono (University of London) and Jacob Forward (University of Oxford). Further information can be found on the project website.