Vaccines occupy an odd place in medical history. They are almost universally recognized as among the most valuable and cost-effective medical tools ever developed. The very first vaccine—for smallpox—curtailed and finally eradicated the most devastating infectious disease ever to strike humanity. The list of lifesaving vaccines developed in the past century or so is long. Most of them are especially protective for diseases that hit children the hardest, such as polio, measles, mumps, whooping cough, and diphtheria.
Yet vaccines have also been controversial, starting with the smallpox vaccine. Paul Offit, a noted vaccine researcher at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and the University of Pennsylvania, just publishedrecounting the history of vaccine controversies and anti-vaccine movements in the United States and England. Partly history and partly a critical assessment of science and policy, it supplies essential guideposts for recent events.