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History of vaccines and anti-vax campaigns – A glimpse – On the history of vaccination


Vaccines have a long history throughout the world. In Mauritius, people have greatly participated in vaccination campaigns – we eradicated smallpox, polio and almost all diseases that affect children – so we have our own history too. It is important, because, when considering vaccination, we are looking at health “for everyone”, that is, for “all of society”, not each for their own; instead of waiting for a disease to arrive and then treating it, we prevent its advent. When there is an epidemic, it attacks all of society, so it is normal that our response must be one that protects the whole of society. We must surpass this selfish mindset that is predominant in current neoliberal era, that encourages us to look at “health” as an “individual illness”, even when talking about an epidemic.

Let us begin with a definition, to make clear, historically, what a “vaccine” is. Here is the logic behind the invention of vaccines. 

  1. When there is an epidemic – such as smallpox, a deadly disease – people noticed that all those who had already caught it were spared the second time. So, midwives began to form this idea of a preventive method. 

  2. Midwives, especially in China, India, Africa and Turkey, applied a small quantity of pus from the wound of a sick person to a superficial scratch on the skin of someone else. The latter would develop a small bump, a sort of scab, then a minor fever, and would be fine. From then on, that person would not catch smallpox – in any future epidemic. This is what we call “inoculation”, sometimes “variolation”. 

  3. Then, some people noticed that all “girls”, all women, without exception, who worked with cows, stayed “pretty” – in that their skin stayed smooth, without smallpox scars like everyone else. An English doctor, Edward Jenner, then realized that, if you catch a disease that is similar to smallpox but is not as critical, such as the one you get when working with cows, it provides you with the same protection, as if you had already caught smallpox, itself. That was the first vaccine (the “va” in “vaccine” comes from the Latin word for “cow”).

Mauritian Tradition

In Mauritius, the first vaccine was administered in 1803, against smallpox actually. By 1810, vaccination had become compulsory for everyone by law, for slaves as well as free men, children as well as elders.* During the subsequent century, there was always a handful of people that resisted; they convinced themselves that the smallpox vaccine would cause leprosy; there were also other superstitions and rumours.

Until forty years ago, to travel abroad, everyone needed to have, as well as their passport, a small yellow booklet with the vaccines they had done. Without it, you do not return. Without it, you do not enter another country. 

Vaccines are thus a fairly long tradition. 

Every mother brings her babies to get all their vaccines, like a ceremony, through the universal health system, which is free for everyone. 

At school, too, all children take their vaccines. 

Every year, right before the influenza season, hundreds of thousands of pensioners show up at the Social Centers everywhere and get their vaccines, or, as people say, get a jab. We all share this tradition. Vaccines have greatly protected us. They will continue to greatly protect us. It is a must that we understand their important role in our health. We all get vaccines, to protect all of us.

A branch of medicine which saves lives, which raises life expectancy 

For example, we no longer hear old women saying, “I had 12 children, 7 of which reached adulthood.” Every woman spoke this way in past times: I had this many children, this many survived childhood. Every woman lived with sorrow in her heart, mourning for the children she had lost to infectious diseases. They went on contemplating their loss: how old each lost  child would have been, as the other children grow up. 

It must be said that modern medicine changed all that. Modern medicine saved many lives. 

Modern medicine has allowed longevity. 

But saving lives and assuring longevity is mostly the result of a single branch of medicine: that which controls infectious diseases, that is, the “public health” branch. And in this branch, we find that vaccines have a great role in saving lives, in raising life expectancy. In addition to vaccine, there are other aspects of “public health”: e.g. diseases such as malaria, dengue, and chikungunya are controlled by cleaning up outdoor spaces to prevent mosquitoes from multiplying in damp areas. This work is the job of public health. The thirteen or so Bureaux Sanitaires are responsible. Some diseases are controlled by getting rid of the little snails that carry bilharzia; the labourers employed by Government clean up canals and the edges of rivers to keep the water flowing and to prevent snails from settling. Some infectious diseases are controlled by institutions such as Meat Authority that checks the health of animals before slaughter. Some diseases are controlled by a system of exchanging used syringes with new ones to discourage the sharing of syringes (hepatitis, AIDS). Some diseases are controlled by the use of condoms (all sexually transmissible diseases). Some diseases are suppressed by the chlorination of running water, like cholera, dysentry and typhoid. All of this, together, is what we call “public health”. And it is Public Health that has saved many lives. It is Public Health that allows our life expectancy to reach 75 years, even more for women. 

Despite that, it is a branch of medicine that is far from well-known. It is not even visible. The more it succeeds, the less you notice it. And many people, especially those who pontificate about “innovation” often do not know that is exists. They know of heart surgery, cosmetic surgery, oncology, gynecology, pediatrics, gastro-enterology, but of epidemiology they know not. Of Public Health, they know nothing. 

Public Health and Covid

In any case, when Covid-19 (SARS-CoV-2 is its real name) appeared, pretty fast we learned – from epidemiologists, as they studied it as it emerged – how to prevent it; wearing masks, keeping windows open, social distancing, washing your hands often. When it spreads out of control, then, no messing around, you need a lockdown. In this way, we stifle the propagation of the coronavirus. At the same time, research for a vaccine against the virus group called “coronavirus”, is accelerated, research which was already pretty advanced due to the SARS epidemic but was then slowed when all “neo-liberal” governments cut their financing to reduce public spending. But, the research was present, even if it was not complete. 

Vaccine against Covid

In any case, pretty fast we received 10 proper vaccines against Covid. People volunteered for the trials, where the efficacity is tested, as well as any adverse side-effects noted. When he was president of the USA, the only good thing Donald Trump achieved was making the Government unblock finance, as well as stand as guarantor for the development of vaccines as soon as the research permitted; while the vaccines were being checkout by the Authorities, the companies could meanwhile move forward, invest in preparing mass production; when mass production began, distribution was already organized. This is what we call “parallel” development and production, instead of “serial” production. That is how we obtained the vaccine against covid this fast. 

Very fast, rich countries suffering from Covid, such as the USA and the UK, started vaccination, and have now vaccinated half of their population. The UK has over 85% of all adults with at least one vaccine. In this way, they have slowed Covid, even though they were unable to contain it by other public health measures. 

In Mauritius, on the other hand: we managed to slow down Covid (so far) with preventive methods such as masks, social distancing, lockdowns, testing alongside contact tracing and government-paid for admissions for quarantine. This was possible only because we already have this tradition of controlling infectious diseases by action taken together. Together, we eradicated malaria. Together, we prevented oncoming overpopulation. We eradicated polio, and all the infectious diseases that affect children. And we contained the Covid first wave, and we are holding off (only just) the second wave. And vaccines are coming to save us now. If enough of us manage to get vaccinated fast enough. A race against the clock. 

In Mauritius, 60% of adults have got their first dose, and 35% are fully vaccinated (8 July). To reach collective immunity for Covid, we must aim for 70% or more of the whole population being fully vaccinated. So, we have far to go. And before we reach this goal, we are still in danger. That means we have no choice but to stay strict on all preventive methods that we have been using so far. And, we now have a new duty. We must halt the propagation of these fake news, much of which is spread by “fear-mongers” whose goal is to make people doubt the vaccine, refuse to take it. 

Knowledge always helps us in these situations. In LALIT, we want to encourage people to take the vaccine with as basis knowledge of what is happening. To understand what is happening, it is important that we know a little of the history of vaccines. We have already demonstrated how vaccines have contributed to raising the life expectancy to 75 and above today. But, where did this idea of vaccine come from? How did this knowledge spread? 

This article will give an outline of the history of vaccination. 

History of Vaccines

Evidently, knowledge of vaccines comes hand in hand with the understanding of the infectious disease in question. So, as comprehension about a disease grows, so does the development of vaccines. 


Even if in history books it is always Edward Jenner, an Englishman, who invented vaccine in 1796, this really the colonial way we have of looking at history. 

There exist documents from China, dating from 1500 CE, which explains how to achieve inoculation. It is believed that this knowledge has existed and been put into practice since at least 1000 CE. The process was also known in regions of Africa, India, and Turkey. 

Knowledge of Inoculation Leaves Istanbul for England

In addition, before Jenner, there was already some development in England, itself. In 1721, the same year France colonises Mauritius for the first time, the first vaccine was performed in England. 75 years before Edward Jenner. 

It was against smallpox. The inoculation method was called “variolation”. A woman called Lady Mary Montagu had brought that knowledge to England after traveling, and had made her doctor, Dr. Maitland, apply this method to her little 3-year-old girl to prevent her from catching smallpox, which was killing many people. It worked. The doctor scraped the girl’s skin, then applied a little liquid (pus) from a smallpox sore on someone with the disease. That was the first documented inoculation in Europe. 

But, how did this Lady know this? In fact, she had gone together with her husband, who was the British Ambassador in Constantinople (Istanbul). She had lost her brother to smallpox, and she too had been quite ill, and though she survived, she was left with many scars on her face. In any case, in March 1718, Lady Montagu was in Turkey. And she made Dr. Maitland, the doctor of the British Embassy, carry out a first inoculation on her 5-year-old son. She had learned this method in a zanana where, each year, midwives went from house to house and inoculated children. The Lady organized for a midwife to carry out this procedure in front of the doctor. She did not tell her husband until a week later, when the inoculation had left its mark, and by which time her son had recovered. Then, three years later, when they had all returned to England, she asked Dr Maitland to carry out inoculation on her little daughter. The doctor accepted, only if it was done in front of three specialists who represented the Royal College of Physicians. Thereafter, Dr. Maitland earned a Royal patent to carry out trials on six prisoners. Long ago, “trials” were done this way, with prisoners, sometimes with orphans. This is important to know, because this is part of collective memory; that trials were carried out on people without their consent. And people have retained this fear throughout generations. The anti-vaxxers know how to make use of this genuine fear. 

In any case, thereafter, every prince and princess throughout Europe used variolation as a protection against smallpox, which was often a fatal disease.

There was a risk to this method, though. Some people caught the disease itself, developed severe smallpox, not just a scar where the inoculation was performed. Most people acquired resistance after the inoculation, but some fell ill. Apparently, the rate of illness and death to inoculation was close to nil in Turkey – they knew precisely how to do it. 

Slaves from Africa Bring Inoculation Knowledge to America

The same year, 1721, the year, remember, that France colonises Mauritius for the first time, a slave from Africa named “Onesimus”, was living in the United States. He had informed his master, Cotton Mather, a well-known preacher in Boston, that he knew of a method of preventing a future smallpox epidemic. Look at the way he said it: “a method of preventing a future smallpox epidemic”. He already saw it as a collective issue. In any case, he explained how the inoculation process went, a bit like Lady Montagu did with Dr. Maitland. And in Boston, the doctors picked up the idea, tested it, and it worked. During the next epidemic, those who had been inoculated were spared. This saved many lives in Boston. But, amongst other people, a wave of hysteria arose against this “new medicine”. The situation is akin to what is happening today in Mauritius: “When news of the new medicine spread, fear crept into the hearts of many people in Boston, and they were enraged. According to Mather, they “made a lot of noise.” Their anger had many sources: fear that the inoculation would actually spread smallpox; fear following the already-existing epidemic of the plague in France; they believed it is immoral to mess with what God has sent. In addition, there was racism and xenophobia since an African man had brought this knowledge. Same as today when people say that “the vaccine from India is bad quality”. There are even people, who said that vaccination is a kind of terrorism; vaccination is “as if a man bombed a town,” someone said. An inhabitant got so enraged that he took revenge on Cotton Mather and sent an actual bomb through his window, with a message attached: “COTTON MATHER, Dog! Go to hell! I will inoculate you with this. Smallpox upon you!” 

Like Mather had written in his dairy, his slave, Onesimus, had told him that this method used by Africans and Asiatics, he had also had. He said he “had undergone an operation, which had given him something of the smallpox and would forever preserve him from it ... and whoever had the courage to use it was forever free of the fear of contagion.”

All this to say, since 1721, the same year France began colonising Mauritius, a version of vaccination existed in England, the USA and in Africa. 

Edward Jenner invents Real Vaccination

75 years later, in 1796, there is new development. Edward Jenner, a doctor in England, realizes that a mild disease such a cowpox offers protection against the mortal smallpox disease to those who later catch it. So, there is no need to risk people actually catching smallpox itself, a risk that variolation ran. The same method can be used, but with a milder disease, cow pox. This new method is the true vaccine, in its first form. That means it is no longer just “inoculation”.

Vaccination Becomes Compulsory all over the Place

By 1853, the vaccine against smallpox becomes obligatory in England, the penalties for refusing it being a fine or prison. Anti-vax cartoons appear. Two years later, in 1855, in Massachussets, it becomes compulsory, too. When someone takes the issue to the Supreme Court 50 years later, in 1905, the judgment states that obligatory vaccination is indeed constitutional. In 1922, everywhere across the USA, you needed to be vaccinated against smallpox to go to school. 

Meanwhile, other vaccines are invented, one after the other. 

Louis Pasteur, followed by 150 years of development of All forms of Vaccines

In France in 1885, Louis Pasteur invents the vaccine against rabies. Rabies is a disease which killed many people. Then, more vaccines against infectious diseases of all kinds were discovered: against diphteria, tetanus, anthrax, cholera, plague, typhoid, tuberculosis, among others. 

In the middle of the 1900s, we got the vaccine against polio, which had killed and crippled millions of children. And then, we got vaccines against all childhood infectious diseases. 

There is major development in the vaccine technology every two to three decades. The research is constant. 

And until fairly recently, some of this medical research was performed on people without their being informed, without their consent – either in colonies, or on prisoners or on orphans, or on oppressed groups. People remember. In this way, for example, many Americans in black communities are hesitant until now of new medicines, of medical research and of vaccines. We have to be aware of this genuine, justified suspicion. And it is important that there be full transparency on every new vaccine. 

Private Profit must be removed from Development and Production of Vaccines! 

For LALIT, we say that vaccine development must, in the long run, be carried out uniquely by non-profit organizations, and that every patent upon vaccines must be made public, so that every other laboratory can produce them. This way, the whole process is transparent. 

New Technology for Certain Vaccines against Covid is quite Effective

In fact, against Covid-19, in 2020, we got 2 vaccines that use a new technology with a basis in “MessengerRNA” or “mRNA” (Moderna and Pfizer). This mRNA teaches our cells how to make proteins, or even a small bit of protein, and provokes an immune response in our body. Same as every vaccine, it helps our body protect us without us having to suffer the dangerous disease itself. Other vaccines against Covid make use of conventional technology. This new technology has a very high rate of efficacy. 

Duty to encourage people to go get the Vaccine

Every Mauritian organization, starting with every political party, must take a firm position, clear to the public, in favour of vaccination. They need to organize for their members to get the vaccine. In this way, their militants, their members have a job: to encourage people to take the vaccine. To organize for people to go for vaccination. 

All this to say that it is our duty, as a political party LALIT to encourage all people to get the vaccine. If we know someone who is afraid of needles, we can even volunteer to accompany them. If ever they do not know the gravity of Covid-19, we must explain. If they do not realize that the hospital system can collapse, dragging down with it the health system in its entirety, should the epidemic spread too fast, this too we must explain. But, most all of all, we must use the same language that this slave from Africa used. He said, “We have a way to prevent the epidemic.” He did not look at it like Bef dan disab, sakenn get so lizye. He did not fend for himself, judge the vaccine only in terms of what good it will do him or her; he sought the common good. And let us hope that someday we have the courage to become volunteers to trials, when a new vaccine is being tested, if there is a new epidemic. Or, even more brave, like Lady Montagu, 3 centuries ago, propose our own children to test a new vaccine when society is in danger. 

But, for this, we cannot leave the pharmaceutical industry in the hands of private profit-making multi-nationals.

Footnote: *Raj Boodhoo, Le Mauricien 4 May, 2021

Source: Original version of this article was published in Kreol on LALIT website on 26th June 2021. Link:

Translated into English by member of LALIT translating team with updated statistics for UK and Mauritian vaccination rates.