Forced vaccinations and deceiving citizens? Mecklenburg has a colorful public health history

Observer file photo

Public health is an important function of North Carolina and Mecklenburg County governments. Last year was the hundredth anniversary of the appointment of the first full-time public health officer in Mecklenburg County.

The recent Hepatitis A scare (“Some think County should Rethink Worker Vaccinations” June 29) justifies reflecting on this rich history. The positive lesson is that government public health functions are much more transparent and respectful of individual desires now than in the past.

Public health authorities used to be very muscular. Local public health boards promulgated quarantines and sanitary regulations much more quickly than the County Commission can act nowadays. Sometimes “muscular” had literal not just metaphorical meaning. In February 1900, two physicians, six police officers and some legal functionary went to a local mill to vaccinate employees against smallpox. Workers in the weaving room staged a largely successful mass breakout; some escaped by jumping out windows.

Clearly, public distrust of vaccination was widespread long before belief in the bogus link between autism and childhood vaccination arose. During the day, several people were arrested until they consented to be vaccinated. The public health and law officers had more success in the evening when they raided the bars along College Street and vaccinated the patrons.

Sometimes tricking the public seemed to be the only path to progress. Campaigns to fluoridate public drinking water used to generate great resistance in the U.S. In Charlotte, the battle raged for two years with critics charging that fluoridation was “a communist plot to doctor the water with rat poison” and “compulsory mass medication.” Local doctors and dentists countered with almost unanimous support for fluoridation, because it protects children against tooth decay at negligible cost.

Charlotte’s Public Health Department and City Council finally inaugurated fluoridation with great fanfare on April Fools’ Day (apparently nobody noticed), 1949. All kinds of negative reviews and reports of dire consequences immediately flooded into city offices, wrote the Observer. Some claimed that the water had begun to taste bad; others reported that lawns wilted and a range of domestic pets from goldfish to cats and dogs suddenly died. Other citizens claimed their teeth had fallen out.

The outcry had reached a crescendo when city officials announced that fluoridation could not have caused all those dire outcomes, because they never started the fluoridation machinery. They had just wanted to expose the fervid hype about fluoridation.

The Health Department’s deception successfully deflated what had been intense opposition and fluoridation began for city residents in May 1949. Charlotte was the first city in the southeast to add fluoride to the water.

The last fifty years have seen great change in local government. The County Commission abolished the unelected Mecklenburg County Board of Health in 1973 and has exercised public health policy-making power since, although the state has taken many of the powers that local government used to exercise. Thus the Observer (June 30) quoted Mecklenburg County Health Director Gibbie Harris as saying current state laws prohibit counties from requiring vaccinations.

Brandon is MMF Distinguished Professor of Health Policy at UNC Charlotte.