The Dale & Betty Bumpers Vaccine Research Center under construction in Maryland in 1999. Library of Congress

Sometimes when I feel like the sky is falling, it helps to remember that others have felt it was falling before, and yet the sky remains above us. At least for now. So when a parent complained that my husband, a high school coach and science teacher, “shamed” children whose families choose not to be vaccinated by mentioning the scientific miracle of the COVID-19 vaccine in physical science class, I coped by eating chocolate and reading late into the night about the history of vaccination in the United States, which is also the history of vaccine opposition by one group or another.

At some point down this rabbit hole, I came across this little gem of information on a website connected to the University of Arkansas:

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Betty Bumpers, wife of the then-Arkansas Governor Dale Bumpers, in 1973 launched the Arkansas statewide immunization program “Every Child by ’74″…The “Every Child by ’74” project, under Bumpers’ leadership, received national recognition for its success and accomplishments and was used as a model for immunization programs across the nation.

I was born in 1972, when Arkansas had one of the lowest immunization rates in the country. While vaccines existed, Arkansas children suffered from measles, rubella and even polio. And yet this says that when I was a year old, a woman from Charleston, Arkansas, started a program to change that by bringing together the medical community, military, educators, churches and anyone else she could to get shots in the arms of Arkansas’s children. She later recalled, “We immunized several hundred thousand kids one Saturday.” Bumpers’ model soon put Arkansas close to number one in immunization rates. It was so successful the CDC implemented it all over the country. By 1977 there was a federal initiative that led to laws requiring vaccinations before entry into school in every state. Betty Bumpers of Charleston, Arkansas, was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame for being, as the secretary of health and human services declared, a “guardian of children, protecting them from polio, from rubella, and many other invisible enemies.”

I find this incredibly inspiring. It’s like my dream—for Arkansas to move from the bottom to be one of the best states in things like education, health care and jobs—and here’s an example of how it has been done before. We went from last to leading the country. Little old Arkansas. There’s no reason why we can’t do it again, if we have the will.

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It is tempting to despair when faced with how our state, which once rose up to provide an example for the whole United States of how to defeat disease, has fallen. In my lifetime we have gone from a wise woman in the governor’s mansion who brought us all together to protect our most vulnerable citizens, to a legislature of know-nothings who divide us, insisting we have the right to do just the opposite—to put our most vulnerable at unnecessary risk—under the guise of freedom.

But we must not despair. 1 Corinthians 4:8-9 says, “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.” Where there’s a will there’s a way forward. Let’s find it, together.

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