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Rio de Janeiro and Boston´s vaccination “revolts”

When the Brazilian congress approved the Mandatory Vaccination Law in 1904, public health officials and police were given the power to enter homes and vaccinate for smallpox by force.  Many Brazilians at this time, especially among the poorer classes, saw vaccine as either ineffective at best or deadly at worse.  In fact, smallpox vaccination still carries a small risk of illness or even death, so this worry was not entirely displaced. To many, the main problem was the intrusion by the state into homes and control over bodies, including those of wives and daughters.  During the second week of November, Rio de Janeiro spiraled into revolt over the compulsory vaccinations.  Cariocas (residents of Rio) overturned trams, barricaded streets, and fought police with sticks and rocks.  The revolt succeeded in the short run; the government was forced to temporarily suspend the vaccination program.  Despite this public upheaval, the program resumed and within a few years was showing successful results in lowering the incidence of smallpox in the Republican capital and other urban areas of Brazil.

Many Brazilians learn about the “Revolta da Vacina” as school children, but few know that similar events occurred elsewhere, including in Boston.  For example, when smallpox became epidemic in Boston in 1901, taking hundreds of lives, the Boston Board of Health sent “virus squads” that targeted mostly poor men living in tenement housing.  The Board met considerable resistance, like in Rio de Janeiro.  A reporter to the Boston Globe who accompanied one of these squads described a “fighting tramp,” who “went down in a heap on the floor” from the blow of a policeman's club.  This poor man received both vaccination and suturing of his scalp, according to this wonderful short article on the episode.  The resistance in Boston did not turn into violent mobs like in Rio de Janeiro, but vaccination opponents fought the efforts of the state on multiple levels, including in court.  One case went as far as the Supreme Court, which ruled in support of a state’s right to force vaccinations in order to protect the public during dangerous epidemics.   Today, it may be not unconstitutional for the U.S. government to force vaccinations in the face of an outbreak of a deadly and contagious disease.

The top illustration, published in the Revista da Semana in 1904, shows the Brazilian povo (people) begging mercy from the stern congresso (congress) wearing a Roman tunic.  Below, we see a various scenes from Boston's obligatory vaccination campaign published in the Boston Globe in 1902.  This includes a child “protecting mama” and a man who “strenuously objected.”

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