When the 13 colonies that would become the United States of America were fighting the Revolutionary War against England, General George Washington ordered his troops to receive the variolation against smallpox. This was the time before Jenner’s smallpox vaccine, so variolation was the best protection against smallpox, a disease that would decimate whole communities when it would arrive in merchant vessels. In 1777, Gen. Washington gave the order, and it would prove to be one of the decisive moves to win the war for independence.
Before George Washington gave his order, Benjamin Franklin had already been promoting the use of variolation. Having lost a child to smallpox, Benjamin Franklin wanted to do his part to make sure other families didn’t suffer the same fate. Of course, at the time, variolation was not without consequences. It was a more controlled way of giving someone smallpox. It certainly wasn’t a vaccine, but it was the best chance communities had to prevent full-blown smallpox epidemics.
When Edward Jenner’s vaccine was shown to be safer than variolation and effective against smallpox infection, people like Thomas Dimsdale and George Rose became champions of the vaccine. As politicians, they promoted the use of the vaccine over variolation, championing Jenner’s cause by creating the National Vaccine Establishment. This paved the way for the vaccine to be widely used in the British Empire and then the rest of the world. Smallpox would be eradicated in the 1970s, almost two hundred years after Jenner developed the vaccine.
Championing the cause of vaccines by celebrities and non-scientists didn’t stop there. In the 1900s, many campaigns were launched by different organizations along with the help of celebrities in order to encourage the public to get vaccinated. In 1938, Eddie Cantor suggested people send President Franklin D. Roosevelt dimes to help fight polio, launching the March of Dimes.
In 1956, Elvis Presley received the Salk vaccine against polio in a public display of his support for the vaccine. It was the beginning of a successful campaign to eliminate polio from the United States once and for all, and it was also the exclamation point on the results of a trial of the vaccine conducted in the previous months which showed the efficacy of the vaccine.
In the 1980s, Roald Dahl, an author of children’s books, advocated for vaccinations after the death of his daughter from measles in 1962. He wrote a letter in 1988 in support of the measles vaccine. In it, he describes his daughter’s illness and eventual death. He also encourages parents to make use of the vaccine as an act of love toward their children:
“Every year around 20 children will die in Britain from measles.
So what about the risks that your children will run from being immunised?
They are almost non-existent. Listen to this. In a district of around 300,000 people, there will be only one child every 250 years who will develop serious side effects from measles immunisation! That is about a million to one chance. I should think there would be more chance of your child choking to death on a chocolate bar than of becoming seriously ill from a measles immunisation.
So what on earth are you worrying about? It really is almost a crime to allow your child to go unimmunised.
The ideal time to have it done is at 13 months, but it is never too late. All school-children who have not yet had a measles immunisation should beg their parents to arrange for them to have one as soon as possible.”
Today, there are many celebrities who are using their public platforms to promote the use of vaccines against measles and other diseases. Seth McFarlane, TV producer, writer, director and actor, has recently taken to Twitterto speak directly to parents who refuse to immunize their children and to the anti-vaccine organizations spreading misinformation. Actress Amanda Peet has also been very vocal in her support of vaccines, appearing in many promotional materials and speaking in interviews about their benefits.
Perhaps most interestingly, and surprisingly in a way, President Donald Trump recently encouraged parents to get their children vaccinated in light of the historic measles epidemic facing the United States. It was surprising because he spoke skeptically about vaccines during the 2016 Presidential Election, going as far as meeting with anti-vaccine groups and being friendly to the idea of a commission to study pseudoscientific claims about vaccines. Needless to say, he received a lot of pushback from those very groups after his statement in support of the measles vaccine.
In a perfect world, the public would listen to and follow the advice of public health authorities and their healthcare providers. Unfortunately, we do not live in a perfect world, and the message about vaccines can be amplified or drowned out by “influencers,” people who are famous and have the ear of the populace. For every anti-vaccine celebrity, there is a pro-vaccine one, and the people listen to one or the other in this imperfect world.