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Streetcar overturned in Praça da República during a protest against the mandatory smallpox vaccination law. Postcard. Rio de Janeiro, Nov. 14, 1904

In the southern-hemisphere winter of 1904, a violent smallpox epidemic struck the city of Rio de Janeiro. Some 3,500 died of the disease in the nation’s capital that year alone. Among the disease-fighting initiatives led by Oswaldo Cruz while head of the General Directorate of Public Health, the most challenging and most controversial was the campaign against smallpox.

A form of prevention had been available since the eighteenth century: the vaccine developed by British physician Edward Jenner. Although vaccination had been mandatory in Brazil since the nineteenth century, the measure had never truly been enforced.

In view of this, Cruz proposed that the federal government submit a draft law to Congress ratifying mandatory vaccination throughout the country. Under the proposal, sanitary authorities would be granted broad powers, including the power to lower fines on the recalcitrant and to require that people present vaccination certificates in order to enroll in school, join the public service, or even get married or travel.

Labeled the “Torture Code” by the public, the proposal angered the opposition. The debate raged in Congress and in the press. Army officers, monarchists, laborers, followers of Positivism, students, journalists, and even physicians—adversaries of vaccination could be found in almost all corners of society. It was to be expected that a movement would take shape: the League against the Mandatory Vaccine.

Cruz and other vaccine advocates held that a number of European nations had successfully adopted compulsory vaccination. But for detractors, mandating an injection was an outright violation of individual freedom, and many people believed that the vaccine itself helped to spread the disease. There was also a moral issue involved: how could a decent family man allow his wife and daughters to bare their arms and thighs to receive the inoculation?

Despite the dissension it spawned, on October 31, 1904, Congress approved the mandatory vaccination law. By then, the pot was close to boiling over. The regulation of the new law nine days later was the last straw. On November 10, the Vaccine Revolt exploded.

Over the course of a week, thousands of people took to the streets of Rio to protest. Businesses closed their doors in several areas and public transportation came to a halt. In the midst of the rebellion came a military insurrection that attempted to depose President Rodrigues Alves. The traditional November 15 parade celebrating the proclamation of the Republic had to be cancelled. With the backing of army troops, Rodrigues Alves withstood the attack and refused to fire Cruz, who was the main target of the demonstrations. A state of siege was declared on November 16 and the government regained control of the situation.

The uprising was quelled but the violence exacted a heavy toll: 30 people were killed, 110 wounded, and 945 arrested. Almost half of those detained were sent to Acre, where many were subjected to forced labor. Although he had won, Rodrigues Alves was forced to cede on one point, and he announced the end of mandatory vaccination.

In 1906, the number of smallpox deaths in Rio had plummeted to only nine. Two years later, however, a violent new epidemic pushed the number of deaths up over 6,500. Revocation of the mandatory vaccine had its price.