The Vaccine riots of Rio de Janeiro, 1904
Public health initiatives on the whole are to be applauded but an over-zealous approach can lead to unanticipated and disastrous consequences as this cautionary tale reveals.
Despite its stunning scenery Rio has always been a bit of a shit hole, no more so than at the turn of the 20th century. It suffered from a rising population, poor water and sewerage systems, over-crowded tenements, irregular rubbish collections and frequent epidemics of tuberculosis, yellow fever, smallpox and the like. The Brazilian president, Rodrigues Alves, decided in 1902 that enough was enough and gave the city’s mayor, Pereira Passos, and the Director of Public Health, Dr Oswaldo Cruz, extensive powers to sort the mess out.
The officials had the bit between their teeth and a major renovation programme was initiated demolishing many of the older buildings and tenements to make way for wide avenues, public gardens and upmarket housing. Thousands of the city’s poor were forced to move out to the perimeter of the city. The Brigadas Mata Mosquitos were created and were given powers to enter homes to eradicate the yellow fever carrying mosquitoes and the burgeoning rat population.
Smallpox was next on the agenda and on 31st October 1904 the earnest Dr Cruz persuaded Congress to pass the mandatory Vaccination Law which allowed sanitary workers accompanied by the police to enter homes and forcibly vaccinate the residents. Well-meaning but possibly a bit heavy-handed, you might think. For many of the poor of the city this was the last straw. Many had lost their homes and their privacy was now being invaded. Rumours circulated the city that the vaccine would be applied to intimate parts of the body and that women would have to undress to be vaccinated. Enough was enough.
On November 11th ,the day the legislation was due to come into force, a coalition of union and non-union workers, the marginalised poor, students and radicals combined to form the Liga Contra a Vacina Obrigatoria. Five days of protest ensued, shops were looted, trams overturned and used as barricades, tracks and poles broken and government forces were attacked with rocks, sticks and anything else that came to hand. On 15th November a group of cadets lead an abortive attempt to stage a coup, using the rioting as a reason for overthrowing a government that had lost control.
The coup may have failed but the rioting left the city without transportation and as water and gas mains had been cut, without basic utilities. On the 17th the government bowed to the inevitable by announcing that it planned to repeal the mandatory smallpox vaccination programme and order was quickly restored. However, at least 12 – some reports claim 30 – died in the disturbances and at least 100 were injured.
Although the legislation may have been repealed the government pressed on with its modernisation programme, forcing more of the poor to occupy makeshift favelas. President Alves discredited the protestors as barbarians and deported many of them to the sparsely populated area of Acre. A similar plan of compulsory vaccination initiated in 1909 didn’t provoke civil unrest, partly because it wasn’t seen as being linked to the urban renewal programme and partly because many of the poor had already moved out of the centre of Rio.
Eventually smallpox was eradicated from the city and in 1907 the 14th International Congress on Hygiene and Demography in Berlin awarded Dr Cruz a gold medal for his efforts.