Episodes in Brazilian History #1 – The Vaccine Revolt

At the turn of the 20th century, Rio de Janeiro was suffering from outbreaks of plague, yellow fever, tuberculosis and small pox. Both Brazilians and immigrants were dying in their 1000’s and the city had acquired a gruesome reputation as the ‘foreigners graveyard’.

In an attempt to curb the death rate and sanitize the city, the Brazilian government hired famed public health expert, which is still an important part of Brazil’s research capacity). Cruz was also an ex-pupil of Louis Pasteur, who did ground breaking research into vaccines for rabies and anthrax. One of Cruz’s first actions was to build a factory to produce serums. He also initiated a policy of urban sanitation that required garbage to be collected regularly and rats and mosquitoes to be exterminated. These measures formed part of a wider phase of urban modernisation, in which old dwellings (cortiços, ) were demolished and streets were widened, partly inspired by the success of Baron Haussmann in Paris. The reorganisation caused the dislocation of many of the poorest city-dwellers, most of whom were forced to re-settle in the outskirts of the city. Tensions ran high among the populace, as they had little faith in the politicians of the age.

After avoiding a major plague outbreak, Cruz turned his attention to smallpox. A law had been passed in 1837, supposedly requiring all children to be vaccinated, but it was never successfully enacted. So, in 1904, the mandatory vaccination act was passed, which permitted officials to vaccinate citizens by force, if necessary. Rumours spread quickly and major riot broke out. Citizens were particularly incensed at the thought of public health officers breaking into houses to inject the vaccine into the backside of women.

The aftermath of the revolt.

Public buildings were destroyed, barricades were constructed, government forces were attacked and the city became a battlefield. The military cadets eventually joined the revolutionaries, and the government was forced to abandon the mandatory vaccination program. The riot had achieved its stated objective, although there were undoubtedly ulterior motives behind the civil disobedience, with many political parties interested using the general unrest to further their political aims.

With the suspension of the vaccination program, smallpox continued to inflict its toll on Rio. With another outbreak on the horizon in 1908, the public realized the solution was within reach and people flocked to have their injections, effectively stamping out the disease. Oswaldo Cruz was vindicated, and his achievements recognised with a gold medal from the International Congress on Hygiene and Demography.