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How Mandatory Vaccination Fueled the Anti-Vaxxer Movement

To better understand the controversy over New York’s measles outbreak, you have to go back to the late 19th century.
A young girl winces from the sting as she receives the polio vaccine in 1954.
A young girl winces from the sting as she receives the polio vaccine in 1954.Harvey Georges/AP

Since the turn of the 20th century, mandatory vaccination has been one of America’s greatest weapons in not only battling outbreaks and eradicating certain diseases, but also preventing them. Though not without significant pushback from anti-vaxxers, who have been in the U.S. just as long.

That’s why to medical historians and ethicists, the controversy playing out over New York City’s mandatory vaccination order as the city battles a widespread measles outbreak is not an unfamiliar story. In fact, while anti-vaxxers are in the minority today—nationally, the median vaccine refusal rate among families with children in kindergarten is 2.2 percent—those who emerged in the late 19th century were fairly influential in loosening those laws.