Merryn McKinnon & Lindy Orthia: 200 years of Australian vaccination campaigns

Early 1800s smallpox vaccination campaign material
21 July 2017

Australian governments could learn a lot from early 1800s smallpox vaccination campaign material, say Merryn McKinnon and Lindy Orthia.

The CPAS researchers compared Australian vaccination campaigns from the early 1800s and from 2016 to find out what kinds of rhetorical strategies and frames each used, in research published this week in the Journal of Science Communication.

They found that materials published in colonial Sydney advocating vaccination against smallpox used more emotional arguments and endorsement by a range of social leaders as well as factual reasoning, whereas 2016 Australian government websites about immunisation mainly stuck to factual-type argumentation.

"Since communications experts recommend multiple rhetorical strategies, including emotional reasoning, to overcome vaccine hesitancy, it seems colonial communicators were doing a better job," said Dr Orthia.

One of the prime examples was letters to Australia's first newspaper, the Sydney Gazette, from the Sydney colony's Principal Surgeon, Thomas Jamison. Jamison used every rhetorical strategy possible to try to persuade people to vaccinate their children, including highly emotive language.

"If they do not embrace the present opportunity they may repent hereafter, when too late, of the great injustice they have done to their children," he wrote on 19 January 1806. "I can only lament their obstinancy, and express my sorrow for the injury done their infant families."

The journal paper was published in a special issue of the journal devoted to the history of science communication.