Susan Pederson reviews Bodily Matters: The Anti-Vaccination Movement in England, 1853-1907 by Nadja Durbach, in the London Review of Books:

If, like me, you are young enough to have been immunised against diphtheria and polio in the mass public health campaigns of the postwar period, but old enough to have known victims of these childhood scourges, it may be hard to think of vaccination except within a narrative of progress. Almost paralysed with dread of the needles awaiting us, my sisters and I nonetheless understood ourselves to be lucky children, rescued by heroic doctors and a benevolent state from the implacable and unseen demons that had randomly crippled or killed so many of our parents’ generation.

Today, this confident alliance of doctors, parents and public health officials is hard to find. Scary if unproven allegations of a link between infant vaccination and both bowel disorders and autism have helped fuel mass movements of parents critical of vaccination in both the US and UK. In Britain, uptake rates for the MMR (measles-mumps-rubella) vaccine are falling, leaving scientists, doctors and public health officials scrambling to reassure parents not only of the safety of vaccines but, more challengingly, of their necessity in a Western world where ‘wild’ cases of measles or rubella are now rare. The press, prone to approach medical matters either through the human interest story (‘Did Leo Blair have the MMR?’) or as a ‘debate’ between two equally plausible positions, has shown itself ill-suited to the task of reporting on scientific data, while on the web claims to expertise flourish unchecked. In cyberspace, organisations urging parents as rational human beings to inform themselves of the risks of vaccination before delivering up their children to the syringe jostle with harrowing pictures of infants struck down by vaccines and the delusional rantings of anti-semites and conspiracy theorists. (Check out www. christianparty. net, where Jonas Salk’s great work developing a polio vaccine is lambasted as a Jewish plot aimed at infecting ‘Christian children’ with monkey-borne diseases.)

More here.