Vaccines on TV and in the Movies

No, this isn’t another review of Wakefield’s anti-vaccine movie VAXXED.

And it isn’t about vaccine scare stories in the media.

It is about how vaccines and vaccine-preventable diseases have been depicted on TV and in the movies.

Tale of a Dog
A 1944 Our Gang short comedy film had the Little Rascals scaring the town into thinking that a smallpox epidemic was coming.

From doctors in the future creating vaccines for plagues from alien worlds to today’s doctors fighting the plague of parents who refuse to vaccinate their kids, there are more than a few different story lines when it comes to vaccines on TV and in the movies.

Vaccines on TV

The go-to show for vaccines on TV?

It’s The Simpsons, with at least 15 episodes with references to vaccines or vaccine-preventable diseases.

It isn’t the only show though. Others include:

  • Little Rascals “Tale of the Dog” (1944) – the gang gets the whole town scared that an epidemic is coming when they overhear Buckwheat talking to his friend Big Shot about giving smallpox to the gang. Smallpox is name they came up with for Buckwheat’s dog, because it had a lot of spots.

    It takes a while, but the doctor finally figures out that the only smallpox in Greenpoint is the gang's new dog.
    It takes a while, but the doctor finally figures out that the only smallpox in Greenpoint is the gang’s new dog.
  • The Adventures of Jim Bowie “The Quarantine” (1957) – Bowie has to recover a stolen shipment of smallpox vaccine.
  • Wagon Train “The Daniel Barrister Story” (1958) – Flint rides into Johnsonville and finds that they are in the middle of a smallpox epidemic, an epidemic that had already wiped out half the town. “I guess a little vaccination never hurt anybody,” says Flint, as he gets vaccinated, since the town doctor isn’t convinced that he has had smallpox already.
  • Have Gun – Will Travel “The Return of Dr. Thackeray” (1958) – The cook at Barton Ranch has smallpox and everyone needs to be vaccinated, if they can get a supply of vaccine from nearby Fort Landon and keep the men at the ranch until they can be vaccinated.
  • Rawhide “Incident at Red River Station” (1960) – Gil and Rowdy get exposed to smallpox and leave the herd to find vaccine. They instead find a town that believes in Asafoetida bags, leeches and herbal tea, pushing the real doctor out of town to care for patients in a pest house. “There are very few people around here who believe in vaccination,” says Dr. Flood, at least until people start dying of smallpox and they line up for the batch of vaccine he makes from the cowpox of a nearby herd.

    Folks lined up to get vaccinated against smallpox in Red River Station, at least they did once more and more people started dying of smallpox.
    Folks lined up to get vaccinated against smallpox in Red River Station, at least they did once more and more people started dying of smallpox.
  • The Avengers “The Deadly Air” (1961) – An experimental vaccine is stolen from a top secret lab.
  • Dr. Kildare “Immunity” (1961) – Dr. Kildare works to prevent a smallpox epidemic by trying to identify and vaccinate contacts, which is made difficult, as they don’t know the patient’s name, only that he is a Polish immigrant, who they later learn was a part of the resistance that fought the Nazis.

    Dr. Kildare interrupts a wedding reception to get everyone vaccinated and protected against smallpox.
    Dr. Kildare interrupts a wedding reception to get everyone vaccinated and protected against smallpox.
  • The Rifleman “Quite Night, Deadly Night” (1962) – the town prepares for a  outbreak as someone new arrives with symptoms of smallpox and the doctor sends out a request for vaccine.
  • The Andy Griffith Show “The County Nurse” (1962) – Andy and Barney help the county nurse talk Rafe Hollister into getting his tetanus shot.
  • Ben Casey “Preferably, the Less-Used Arm” (1962) – Dr. Ben Casey has a hard time finding people who may have been exposed to smallpox because his patient can’t talk.
  • The Wild Wild West “The Night of the Amnesiac” (1968) – Agent West loses his memory after he is shot protecting a stagecoach transporting the state’s only supply of smallpox vaccine.
  • The Virginian “Ride to Misadventure” (1968) – A stage coach with anthrax vaccine gets robbed and the Virginian has to track them down.
  • Petticoat Junction “Sorry Doctor, I Ain’t Takin No Shots” (1969) – Dr. Janet Craig, with nurses Billie Jo, Bobbie Jo and Betty Jo, gets everyone in the valley vaccinated against the flu to prevent an epidemic, including Jasper Tweedy and his whole clan.

    Sam Drucker gave everyone free flu shots at his general store to prevent a flu epidemic in Petticoat Junction.
    Sam Drucker gave everyone free flu shots at his general store to prevent a flu epidemic in the valley (Petticoat Junction).
  • That Girl “The Subject Was Rabies” (1969) – Ann’s (Marlo Thomas) father is bitten by a dog that might have rabies and Dr. Priddy talks about giving him “the Pasteur anti-rabies vaccine series” if they can’t find the dog.
  • Dragnet “Juvenile: DR-32” (1969) – Detective Joe Friday and Officer Bill Gannon have two hours to find a dog that had bitten a little girl on the neck five days earlier because she is allergic to the anti-rabies serum that would be given with the rabies vaccine. The little had survived a polio infection just a few years before the dog bite incident.
  • Marcus Welby, M.D. “Epidemic” (1970) – Dr. Welby’s works to control a flu epidemic.
  • The Carol Burnett Show “Episode #10.15” (1977) – included a skit about a group of scientists working on a vaccine for swine flu.
  • Quincy, M.E. “By the Death of a Child” (1979) – Quincy goes to San Christos to investigate if a diphtheria vaccine is killing children in the small country.
  • The Campbells “Desperate Remedy” (1989) – Dr. Campbell searches for a sick cow to make vaccine after Harriet gets exposed to smallpox.
  • Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman “Father’s Day” (1993) – Dr. Quinn works to convince folks in town to get vaccinated against smallpox.
  • Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood “Brave and Strong” (1996) – It’s a beautiful day to get a flu shot! Mister Rogers takes us on a trip to the Center City Health Center so that kids would understand what happens when they get an immunization.

    Mister Rogers gets a flu shot.
    It’s a beautiful day to get a flu shot!
  • South Park “Chicken Pox” (1998) – The kids have a sleepover at Kenny’s house because he has chicken pox
  • ER “A Walk in the Woods” (2001) – Carter takes care of an unvaccinated child with measles. A child who later dies.
  • ER “Lockdown” (2002) – Everyone in the ER is quarantined as they think two patients have smallpox.
  • ER “Kisangani” (2003) – Carter visits Luka in the Congo, when he is initially away at another clinic giving people vaccines.
  • House MD “Paternity” (2004) – House diagnoses a teen with subacute sclerosing panencephalitis (SSPE is a late complication of a natural measles infection) and also treats a baby who hasn’t received any vaccines because her anti-vaccine mother thinks they are a BigPharma conspiracy theory.

    House M.D. talking to a mother who thinks vaccines are part of a Big Pharma scam.
    House M.D. talking to a mother who thinks vaccines are part of a Big Pharma scam.
  • Deadwood “Suffer the Little Children” (2004) – people line up to get the smallpox vaccine.
  • Law & Order “Fluency” (2005) – a con man is selling fake flu shots and it leads to the death of 16 people who end up getting the flu.
  • Family Guy “Stewie Loves Lois” (2006) – Peter goes to his doctor to get a flu vaccine.
  • Saturday Night Live “Melissa McCarthy/Lady Antebellum” (2011) – the episode includes a parody commercial for Lil’ Poundcake, a doll that gives little girls an HPV shot.
  • Private Practice “Contamination” (2009) – Dr. Freedman takes care of an intentionally unvaccinated child who got measles when his mother took him and his siblings to Switzerland to treat their brother’s autism. The child dies and Dr. Freedman vaccinates the youngest child against the mothers wishes.
  • Nurse Jackie ” Super Greens” (2014) – Zoey Barkow, one of the nurses at All Saints recruits others to go to a gay bar to give out free meningitis vaccines.
  • Law & Order: Special Victims Unit “Granting Immunity” (2015) – an unvaccinated child  who’s mother may have falsified his immunization records gets the measles and starts an outbreak, hindering an investigation into an underage sex party and the circulation of pornographic images of teenagers online.
  • Call the Midwife “Christmas Special” (2016) – Sister Julienne and a group of midwives work to keep a mission hospital in South Africa open as it works to start a polio vaccination program in the early 1960s.
  • Family Guy “Hot Shots” (2016) – Lois and Peter cause a measles outbreak, after they convince other parents to not vaccinate their kids and Peter destroys every vaccine in town.

    Lois and Peter are alone at their anti-vaccine rally, but still manage to trigger a measles outbreak at Stewie's daycare.
    Lois and Peter are alone at their anti-vaccine rally, but still manage to trigger a measles outbreak at Stewie’s daycare.

Not surprisingly, vaccines come up in science fiction shows a lot too:

  • Star Trek “Miri” (1966) – Dr. McCoy works on a vaccine to cure a disease that had killed all of the adults on the planet and is starting to affect the landing party, including Captain Kirk.
  • Star Trek: The Next Generation “Code of Honor” (1987) – Captain Picard and the Enterprise-D go to Planet Ligon II to get a vaccine to prevent more people from getting Anchilles fever on the Federation planet Styris IV.
  • Star Trek Voyager “Heroes and Demons” (1995) – The Doctor tells a story of developing a vaccine to stop the spread of Parinisti measles among the crew of the USS Voyager.
  • The Outer Limits “The Vaccine” (1998) – After most of the people in the world are killed by a man-made virus, a nurse has to decide who gets a limited supply of a new vaccine.
  • The X-Files “The Red and the Black” (1998) – we learn more about the Purity Control vaccine that can provide resistance against black oil, an alien virus.
  • The X-Files “One Son” (1999) – more on the experiments by the Syndicate that led to the creation of a black oil vaccine
  • Enterprise “Dead Stop” (2002) – not finding evidence of live microorganisms from a recently administered Rigelian fever vaccine in his bloodstream helps the Enterprise crew realize that Ensign Mayweather was replaced with a near-perfect replica.
  • What did the vaccine on Lost even do?
    What did the vaccine on Lost even do?

    Lost  (2004-2010) – multiple episodes of Lost mention a vaccine, CR 4-81516-23 42 or RX-1 GND, that was given every nine days.

  • Stargate SG-1 “The Fourth Horseman: Part 2” (2006) – Work continues on a vaccine for the plague that is spreading across the earth by the Priors of the Ori.
  • Battlestar Galactica “A Measure of Salvation” (2006) – The Cylons are sick with a virus. Should they create a vaccine or work to destroy the Cylon race?
  • Smallville “Oracle” (2006) – Milton Fine creates an alien virus to destroy mankind, while Lex develops a vaccine to protect them.
  • Eli Stone “Faith” (2008) – The first episode of this show includes a legal case about vaccines and autism.
  • V “It’s Only the Beginning” (2009) – The flu vaccine the visitors want to give mankind isn’t what it seems.
  • Get Well Soon “How Do Injections Help You?” (2015)  – Dr Ranj gives Deep an MMR injection, after explaining why shots are important.
  • The X-Files “My Struggle II” (2016) – Scully develops a vaccine, using her own DNA, to protect people from the Spartan Virus, that has infected most people already and is wiping out their immune systems.

There are more TV shows that are about vaccine preventable diseases, but don’t mention vaccines, like when Marcus Welby, M.D. had a few episodes about congenital rubella syndrome in 1972 and Olivia got polio on the Waltons.

Vaccines in the Movies

Haven’t seen many of those TV shows that mentioned vaccines?

You might be more familiar with these movies:

  • The Last Man on Earth (1964) – Dr. Robert Morgan (Vincent Price) uses his own blood as a vaccine to cure people who after a plague turns most people into vampires. (Based on the book I Am Legend)
  • The Omega Man (1971) – Robert Neville (Charlton Heston) creates a vaccine to cure the disease that is affecting the survivors of a nuclear war between China and the Soviet Union. (Based on the book I Am Legend)
  • The X-Files: Fight the Future (1998) – Only the Syndicate vaccine can protect everyone from the alien virus.
  • Star Trek (2009) – Captain Kirk has a reaction to a vaccine that Dr. McCoy gives him to protect him from getting infected with Melvaran mud fleas.
  • I Am Legend (2007) – Robert Neville (Will Smith) creates a vaccine to cure the man made disease (was supposed to be a cure for cancer) that wiped most people on earth and turned the survivors without natural immunity into Dark Seekers. (Based on the book I Am Legend)
  • World War Z (2013) – Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) tries to find the origin of the zombie plague virus so that a vaccine can be made. A “camouflage” vaccine is eventually made to hide survivors from the zombies.

Am I missing any?

Probably.

I’m a doctor, not a TV historian!

More on Vaccines on TV and in the Movies

 

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