Edward Jenner: One of the many men who have contributed to coronavirus vaccine hesitancy

As the reopening of London is approaching and several COVID restrictions will be lifted, my father, a passionate public health professional, told me about the English physician, Edward Jenner. Jenner created the first vaccine after smallpox hit England hard in the 19th century. Jenner tested a theory inspired by cowpox, a similar virus in cows that was less dangerous for humans. Milkmaids who had been exposed to cowpox were not getting smallpox. So he inserted pus from a cowpox pustule into the arm of his gardener’s son, an 8-year-old boy. After more experimentation he realized the inoculation was very effective, although it was not until much later that it was widely recognized. 

Photo courtesy of Van der Krogt

In Kensington Gardens stands a statue of Jenner. Although I am grateful for the advances his work made for science and public health, I felt strange visiting his monument. The methods of his experiment were in huge violation of biomedical ethics. None of these principles existed until the 1940s, but to put the life of a young child (and someone else’s child at that) I view it as objectively wrong, whether or not there is an official code telling me so. 

It was interesting to learn about Jenner in such a relevant time in our own lives. With sixty-five percent of London’s population having gotten the first dose of the vaccine, previous legal coronavirus restrictions including mandatory face masks in shops and public transport, the shut down of night clubs and festivals, and the cap of 6 people for indoor meetings are all said to be lifted on July 19th.

But vaccine hesitancy among marginalized communities in London has been recorded, with 18% of Black adults reporting hesitancy compared with white adults at 4%, and 15% hesitancy in Muslim communities compared with 3% of the Christian community. 

Edward Jenner’s unethical experimentation is an example of why hesitancy is not as high in the white, Christian population. Jenner dehumanized his workers by his choice to use his gardener’s son opposed to himself or his peers, treating the boy as if he was dispensable. 

And biomedical and psychological experiments have a long history of abusing marginalized communities. The Nazi’s experimented on those in trapped in their concentration camps. Slave traders sold enslaved peoples to doctors for dangerous and invasive research. Black men and women have been used in incredibly unethical studies, most famously the Tuskegee syphilis study. Imprisoned and orphaned peoples have been experimented on without consent. 

So I, as a white, atheist woman, cannot even begin to comprehend the systemic discrimination in medical ethics, but I fully understand why marginalized communities are wary of becoming the government’s guinea pig once again during our current public health crisis. 

A Message from the Office of Global Engagement:

The safety and security of Drexel students is a priority for the University. As part of the efforts to support Drexel students that are studying abroad during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Office of Global Engagement has conducted a rigorous review of programming and provided additional support to participating students with customized pre-departure orientations and regular check-ins during the required self-isolation period and the term.

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