The Price of Anti-Vax

Today I read that an art academy in the USA decided that students can only attend when fully vaccinated unless they’ve got a medical or religious waiver: “Of the major religions practiced in the United States, only the Church of Christ, Scientist (whose adherents are known as Christian Scientists) and the Dutch Reformed Church are the two religious groups that openly discourage vaccination.”

Of course, the American anti-vax movement would have its roots in Dutch religious zealots. The Dutch Reformed Church would be the church of the Secession of 1834, by Reverend Hendrik de Cock, and it was his own son he carried to the grave because of his stance against vaccination. Dr. Hanneke Hoekstra, university lecturer on modern history wrote about this in her paper The Deceased Child:

In 1840 a son was born to the De Cock family, Regnerus Tjaarda. When he was one year old, the child got the feared smallpox. To survive, the little boy had to be vaccinated with cowpox, but this brought De Cock a moral dilemma. His oldest son Helenius had been vaccinated against pox in 1838; he was witness to what happened.

My father became familiar with the arguments of dr. A. Capadose and others against the vaccine soon after his conversion. Then and also later he was suspicious of everything that came from the side of the non-believers or was heavily promoted by them. (…) He constantly left the sick room and when evening had fallen I followed him without being noticed and witnessed how he poured his heart out to his God.

Trusting on his direct connection with God, De Cock decided that “Your will, and not mine, will be done.” When his son died the next day, there was not a word of complaint against God from the mouth of his father, according to Helenius. The death inspired their religious practice and their religion decided on death. (from: The Deceased Child, Hanneke Hoekstra, p. 199)

Vaccination depicted as a cow-like monster, being fed children in 1807. A precursor of the modern “not my children!” movement. Everything old is new again!

Of course, he wasn’t the first anti-vaxer; in the earlier 19th century there’d been an offensive against the pox, met by resistance from orthodox religious corners. Still; this one church, and one man’s religious verve, and we now still have people in the USA (and The Netherlands?) who are not getting vaccinated because of him. Aside from his boy Regnerus, how many have died because of it?

Farmer and writer (and De Cock’s nemesis) M.D. Teenstra had seen how tuberculosis spread like wildfire through his family in the 1820s. He’d written about smallpox in the Dutch colony of South Africa in his The Fruits of my Labours (1830):

In 1713 and 1755 smallpox must have raged terribly here. It appears that these childhood diseases are more dangerous amongst black and coloured people and make more victims than amongst Europeans. It was the knowledgeable and humanitarian Dibbetz (…), I say it was mr. R. de Klerk Dibbetz, inspector-general of the Cape’s hospitals, who in secrecy went to the Portuguese ship Belisario, anchored in the Table Bay where it had arrived on the 18th November 1803, where he got a strand of the material without the people’s knowledge, with which he in the city started his beneficial deceit, until finally governor Janssens, even though at first against the vaccine, allowed him the use the great hospital, now the barracks, for the further application of it. When the government saw the beneficial results, they showed Dibbetz their gratitude for his dangerous and courageous, his beneficial undertaking, with a genuine display of admiration for him, as well as costly gifts.

Meanwhile, in the province of Groningen (where Teenstra and De Cock lived) a 1an emergency hospital was built in 1817 because of a typhus epidemic, while newspapers in 1849 had daily updates on cholera sufferers and mortality numbers.

Article from an 1849 regional newspaper, tracking cholera infections and mortalities, much like our modern news bulletins.

All this goes to show that people of the era were well aware of the dangers and suffering caused by the various epidemics; the 19th century was an era of epidemics, but also one of enlightenment and medical progress. Not having your children vaccinated in 1840 certainly was a choice.