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At the beginning of the 20th century the city of Rio de Janeiro, then capital of Brazil, although noted for beautiful palaces and mansions, also suffered from serious inadequacies in infrastructure, including insufficient water and sewer systems, irregular garbage collection, and densely populated tenements. In this environment many illnesses proliferated, including tuberculosis, measles, typhus and leprosy. From time to time epidemics of yellow fever, smallpox and bubonic plague occurred. Between 1897 and 1906, 4,000 European immigrants died in Rio de Janeiro from yellow fever alone. Beginning in 1902, president Rodrigues Alves determined to improve hygiene and modernize the city. He gave plenary powers to the city’s mayor Pereira Passos and to Director General of Public Health Dr. Oswaldo Cruz to execute sweeping sanitary improvements.
The mayor initiated an extensive urban reform program, which was popularly termed the bota abaixo ("throwing down or out"), in reference to the demolition of older buildings and tenement houses, with subsequent conversion of the land to stately avenues, gardens, and upscale homes and businesses. Thousands of poor people were displaced to peripheral neighborhoods. Dr. Cruz created the Brigadas Mata Mosquitos (Mosquito-Killing Brigades), groups of sanitary service workers who entered homes in order to exterminate the mosquitoes which transmitted yellow fever. The campaign also worked to exterminate rats which transmitted bubonic plague, distributing rat poison and requiring proper handling, storage, and collection of garbage.
To eradicate smallpox, Cruz convinced the Congress to approve the Mandatory Vaccination Law (October 31, 1904), which permitted sanitary brigade workers, accompanied by police, to enter homes to apply the vaccine by force.
The population was confused and discontented. The city seemed in ruins, many people had lost their homes, while others had had their homes invaded by the health workers and police. Articles in the press criticized the action of the government and spoke of possible risks of the vaccine. Moreover, it was rumored that the vaccine would have to be applied to the “intimate parts” of the body (or at least that women would have to undress in order to be vaccinated), aggravating the anger of the population, and resulting in a popular rebellion.
The approval of the Vaccination Law was the proximate cause of the revolt: on November 5, the opposition created the Liga Contra a Vacina Obrigatória (League Against Mandatory Vaccination).
From November 10 through 16, the city became a battlefield. The excited population looted shops, overturned and burned trams, made barricades, pulled out tracks, broke poles, and attacked government forces with rocks, sticks, and debris. On November 14, the cadets of the Escola Militar da Praia Vermelha (military college) also mutinied against the government’s actions. In reaction, the government suspended mandatory vaccination and declared a state of siege. The rebellion was contained, leaving 30 dead and 110 wounded. Hundreds of imprisoned people were deported to the then frontier region of Acre.
After the government resumed control, the vaccination process was restarted, resulting in smallpox eventually being eradicated from the city. The international medical community at large regarded Dr. Cruz' efforts in the affair with considerable sympathy: in 1907, the 14th International Congress on Hygiene and Demography in Berlin awarded him their gold medal.
- Sevcenko; Nicolau – ”A Revolta da Vacina” (Portuguese) Cosac Naify 2010 (1st edition – Brasiliense 1984) ISBN 978-85-7503-868-0
- Meihy; José Carlos & Bertolli Filho; Claudio – "Revolta Da Vacina" (Portuguese) Ática 1995 ISBN 85-08-05254-5
- Robert G. Nachman, Positivism and Revolution in Brazil's First Republic: The 1904 Revolt, The Americas, Vol. 34, No. 1 (Jul., 1977), pp. 20–39 JSTOR 980810 doi:10.2307/980810
- "History of Anti-vaccination Movements". History of Vaccines. The College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Archived from the original on July 29, 2014.