The Art of Vaccinations

I was reading earlier this week that the National Archives in the UK has digitized and shared with Wikimedia Commons a large selection of its war art collection dating from the Second World War. Looking through the pictures I was struck in particular by the poster below, encouraging parents to vaccinate their children against diptheria:

I found it fascinating that, in addition to asking citizens to save fuel and collect scrap metal, bones, paper and rags, vaccination was seen as an important contribution to the war effort. In wartime it was easy to convince people to conserve resources, recycle and do what they could to keep everyone healthy – it would prove tougher to do during peace time. I decided to browse through some immunization art to see if I could discern any themes of interest.
There’s always been a fear of vaccinations of course. The James Gillray cartoon below, depicting Edward Jenner administering the cowpox vaccine to innoculate against smallpox, is a famous case in point. I think my favourite image is of the poor man in blue who has a cow appendage growing from his nose. I imagine that would be exceedingly inconvenient.
So I was expecting that most of the vaccination art I would find would, to some extent, address this fear and attempt to convince parents to make the right choice. Judging from the posters I found, it was a lot easier to convince the post-war generation to vaccinate, presumably because the effects of these diseases was something that most people were still familiar with. The images below were all found at the National Library of Medicine site, unless otherwise noted.
Children being hospitalized or dying from infectious disease was something that most of our grandparents had some experience with. My Nannie and my mother would tell me about family members, friends or classmates who had either died or been critically ill with diseases that seemed to have disappeared by the time my generation was growing up. Nannie had diptheria when she was a child and my mother nearly died from pertussis (whooping cough). I got mumps before I could be vaccinated, but I don’t remember anyone else I knew contracting it, or measles for that matter. When people have personally seen the devastation that can be wrought by vaccine-preventable disease, it’s not hard to get them to make the choice to immunize, as the picture below from the CDC’s Public Health Image Library shows. It’s an aerial shot from 1962, of people lining up to receive the polio vaccine in San Antonio, Texas.
When it came to my parent’s generation the purpose of vaccine art seemed to be primarily informational – reminding parents to get their children vaccinated, making sure they knew where to take their children to be immunized as well as what vaccines were available.
As we know, the greatest enemy of vaccination in developed countries is success. As diseases are partially eradicated their impact is erased from our collective memories and vaccination rates start to drop. With international travel being so common, it’s not hard for these diseases to re-establish themselves when vaccine rates are low. This 2010 poster from Immunize Canada reflects the swing back from giving information to attempting to convince parents of the need to vaccinate:
Immunization art is a reflection of our society’s reality – if many of us continue to choose not to vaccinate our children, then we will likely see a resurgance of artwork reflecting the effects of that decision. If you start seeing posters of children portrayed as ill or dying from vaccine-preventable diseases, then you will know we’ve made poor choices as a society.

Tomorrow is Father’s Day, so for all you fathers out there, I hope you enjoy a wonderful day with your children. I’d also like to leave you with a final thought, reflected in the post I found below. Have you been a responsible father and ensured your family is fully immunized?


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4 Comments on “The Art of Vaccinations”

  1. Diane June 17, 2012 at 9:54 am #

    Love this look back, Deanne. My mom never learned to swim because the fear of catching polio kept everyone out of the pool. It’s easy to see why people would line up for the vaccine.

    • OMum22 June 17, 2012 at 10:01 am #

      I’m glad you enjoyed it Diane. It is amazing how much we take for granted now, how restricted earlier generations were due to things like this – not to mention the fear parents felt every summer, worrying if their child would be struck by “infantile paralysis”. I strongly support the work of WHO and the Bill Gates Foundation in trying to eradicate polio but it’s proving a tough nut to crack.

  2. Gingerheaddad June 22, 2012 at 8:18 am #

    I always find it cool to look back at old awareness materials. Did you find any that vilified the wee beasties or suggested we could win this war?

    When I think about those opposed to vaccinations, I understand the fear of putting disease into a child. Reading the Panic Virus (thank you for loaning it to me) I can see that the fear of a fatal disease has been replaced in some minds by a fear that autism is worse than death. The old style propaganda campaigns run by governments just don’t work because for these folks the government has been discredited on so many levels and their messages don’t resonate as a result.

    The recent flu scare and the success of the vaccination uptake actually discredited the government message further. I believe people actually expected large numbers of folks to get sick to validate the vaccination progam. And when people found out some doses might actually contain thimerasol, conspiracy was in the air.

    A couple of weeks ago a letter came home with my daughter’s school newsletter. It was a not that pertussis case were up and to make sure that vaccinations were up to date. The letter was a weak example of trying to appeal to people’s reason. The very people who are not trusted do not realize that they are no longer trusted. It’s a little like expecting that World War II era diptheria post to have an impact today.

    • OMum22 June 22, 2012 at 10:19 am #

      Thanks for your comment Jim. I think you raise the very thorny issue regarding what can be done? What approach would work, if the old approaches don’t? If appeals to reason aren’t effective, what other options do we have? I’m certainly not about to start spreading misinformation and ramping up the rhetoric in the way that the anti-vax camp does. I think (from memory) that The Panic Virus suggests that we need to get to people with the facts, before they form an opinion, which is smart. I also think we need to be vigilant in ensuring that evolutionary biology is taught in schools and that we appropriately educate children in relation to public health issues, the importance of herd immunity and so on. If we leave it until people are becoming parents, it’s probably too late. I think it’s also important that we walk the walk and talk the talk – we ensure that we ourselves, as well as our children, are fully immunized and we bear witness to the fact that we do it and why it’s important that it’s done.

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