Christians, vaccinations, and herd immunity

A devout Christian heard an urgent news report on his radio that a flash flood was within minutes of entering the peaceful valley where he lived. Immediately he went to his knees and prayed for safety. The words were still on his lips when he became aware that water was gushing under his door. He retreated to the second floor and finally onto the roof of his house.

While he sat on the roof, a helicopter flew by and the pilot asked over the loudspeaker if they could lift him off. “It’s not necessary since I have the Lord’s protection,” he replied.

Moments later the house began to break up and he found himself clinging to a tree. A police boat, braving the waters, approached him for rescue, but he assured them that the Lord would save him. Finally, the tree gave way and the man went to his death.

Standing before the Lord, he asked, “Lord, I’m glad to be here, but why didn’t You answer my prayer for safety?”

The Lord responded, “Son, I told you over the radio to get out of there Then I sent you a helicopter and a motor boat!”

– Old joke, author unknown

Beginning in the 1980′s, there began to be an increasing drumbeat of people refusing to vaccinate their babies or children. Sadly, many of them were theologically conservative Christians. The arguments used from back then to today were, and are, various. One of them was that the chance of having a side effect from the vaccination was greater than that of getting the disease. Actually, that was statistically true, but completely invalid–more on that later. Then there was the false vaccination and autism link. Despite the fact that the early study has now been disproven by several studies, you will still find parents that will talk about that link and refuse to believe the more detailed studies. They have given in to a form of conspiracy theory thinking in which somehow the contradiction of the earlier study is a conspiracy. One must ask, a conspiracy against what? Many began to use the idea that it was their religious belief, because schools were denying their unvaccinated children entry–except for the religious belief exemption. The fact that no large Christian body has come out against vaccinations does not seem to impede these folks. Neither does the fact that there is nothing in Scripture that bears that interpretation.

At first, of course, the lack of vaccinating children worked. Unvaccinated children were not getting sick. The explanation for that was thought of back in 1933 in a concept that came to be called herd immunity. There have been papers written about it. The abstract of one says:

An understanding of the relationship between the transmission dynamics of infectious agents and herd immunity provides a template for the design of effective control programmes based on mass immunization. Mathematical models of the spread and persistence of infection provide important insights into the problem of how best to protect the community against disease.

In other words, this is a well researched area. What is boils down to is that if most of a herd is vaccinated, then those diseases that are transmitted through things like airborne droplets, feces, etc., will have their chains of transmission broken by the high number of immune individuals. For most of the transmissible diseases, that threshhold is around 85%, though some require a higher threshhold. In other words, if 85% or above of a community is immunized, the chances of your unimmunized child getting one of the childhood diseases is close to nothing. So, those early rejecters of vaccination saw their children grow up and not catch a childhood illness. This fed the myth that vaccinations were nowadays unnecessary.

Needless to say, there are those who also reject the concept of herd immunity. You need only search in Google to find those individuals whose arguments appear to destroy the idea of herd immunity. They call it yet another conspiracy to get you vaccinated. But, the proof is in the pudding.

As you know, I work in a hospital. This means that periodically I go to infectious diseases continuing education. And guess, which diseases have numbers that are beginning to climb? Both influenza caused by Haemophilus and meningitis caused by Neisseria bacteria are beginning to climb among children in certain parts of the country. Which parts are those? The parts in which the percentage of vaccinated people has fallen below the threshhold for herd immunity.

In other words, the theory of herd immunity is being proved upon the bodies of our unvaccinated children.

Because we are dealing with children, I am going to be uncharacteristically blunt. No major Christian group has a statement about children not being vaccinated. If you decide to not vaccinate your children, please do not say that this is a result of your Christian beliefs. Please attribute it to something else. And, to be even more blunt, if your unvaccinated child gets ill of a preventable childhood disease, do not blame God or ask Him why this happened. It happened because of you.

Comments

  1. says

    An interesting topic, for sure. I always enjoy vaccination discussions that are non-hysterical and non-conspiratorial, regardless of which ‘side’ it leans toward. While I did decide in the end that vaccination provided the best protection for my kids, it took some time to sift through information. It’s easy to find a one-page summary of each vaccine. It’s easy to find alarmist websites. What is more difficult is balanced information. I agree that parents should be very cautious about using religious exemptions and should not misrepresent their faith. Unfortunately there are few other options and those who choose to not vaccinate are put in a difficult position. I do think your last sentence was a bit harsh. These parents struggle with just that: If their child were to have a preventable serious reaction to the vaccine, that would be on them. It works both ways. There is a polarizing between the two camps, making it very difficult for parents stuck in the middle.

  2. Dianne says

    I appreciate this. There needs to be some room for reasonable tweaking of the conventional immunization schedule, too, though. We took a mildly unconventional approach to vaccinations, while ultimately following the recommendations. We just adjusted the timing of some immunizations. Our doctor was comfortable with waiting just a little longer, or spacing some out a little more rather than giving a whole lot of shots in one visit, etc. Here’s where I got a bit angry once, though: Our son was born shortly after the hospitals began the practice of routinely vaccinating newborns for Hep B. My husband and I had a 10-minute or so conversation about that shot with my doctor just hours after our son was born, and we agreed that it would be fine not to give it to him right away, but to wait a little while. In walks the nurse, and we tell her of our decision, and she informs us that he’d already been given the shot. Our doctor was even taken aback; apparently the practice was new enough that even she didn’t realize that it was being given almost immediately after birth, without discussion with the parents.

    Our daughter turned out to be allergic to thimerosal, which is used as a preservative in many immunizations, so we had some issues getting her thimerosal-free shots. Even that takes informed and vigilant parents. We weren’t just objecting to thimerosal as potentially dangerous, as many parents did; she actually tested positive as allergic to it. Then there was the time when she was a teen and needed a thimerosal-free tetanus booster, and the nurse gave her tetanus immune globulin instead. Good grief. Not a dangerous mistake in this case, but a clear case of giving the wrong thing. What if, you know?

    Well, not arguing here, but just tossing in a reminder that it’s okay for medical professionals to be a little flexible at the request of informed, responsible parents who appreciate the importance of immunizations but want to take a slightly gentler approach, or one slightly modified for what they see as their children’s individual needs.

    • says

      Actually, I have absolutely no problem with what you said. On any and every vaccination, there is a range of months during which it should be received. So, it is indeed true that–provided you know the range–you can adjust the schedule with your doctor. The only reason they are given at the standard visits is for the sake of convenience for the parents and because a set schedule simply makes it easier to ensure that a vaccination is not forgotten.

      The reason the Hepatitis B vaccine is now given almost automatically as one of the “at-birth” vaccines has to do with protection. Let me put an explanatory quote from another website.

      According to the CDC, giving a birth dose of hepatitis B vaccine is a good idea because:

      It provides ‘a “safety net” to prevent perinatal infection among infants born to HBsAg-positive mothers who are not identified because of errors in maternal HBsAg testing or failures in reporting of test results’

      The birth dose ‘provides early protection to infants at risk for infection after the perinatal period’

      Infants who get the birth dose of hepatitis B vaccine have ‘higher rates of on-time completion of the hepatitis B vaccine series’

      It reduces the risk that a child could get hepatitis B later in childhood, even if he isn’t at risk now from a mother with hepatitis B, since they could be exposed to another caregiver or family member with hepatitis B

      Most importantly, although young children often have no symptoms when they develop a hepatitis B infection, they are very likely to go on to develop problems with chronic hepatitis. In fact, 90% of children who develop hepatitis before they are 12 months old will go on to develop chronic hepatitis B, for which there is no cure and few reliable treatments.

  3. Bridgette says

    I’m going to also be blunt. If your child suffers a terrible reaction or death from the said vaccines that you are pushing do not blame God for THAT either. Vaccine reactions are fact and not fiction. They are also proven through science and studies. One of the reactions is brain swelling. No matter your choice because let me be clear it is YOUR choice do not use your Christian belief to judge others because of theirs. You have both benefits and horrible and terrible consequences with either choice.

    While I do understand where you are coming from I really find the main basis of your argument flawed. The Lord does offer us help in many different ways. If a boat came during a flood I would certainly take it. You are telling me though that the Lord our God is sending us mass produced medicine from companies that are making millions that is made with aborted fetal cells as help? I’m sorry but I do not believe that. God has told me otherwise. On the other hand he also tells me “Hey folks what is the cardboard, pink slime, and genetically modified by man because what I gave you wasn’t good enough crap? Here are fresh fruits and vegetables and here is things filled with probiotics that will nurture your immune systems and prevent the diseases.” I mean if you eat hot dogs, soda, cheeseburgers etc… or your baby is on formula and when he’s able to eat you are going to feed him pasturized things devoid of immune building qualities then I reckon some people have no choice but to vaccinate.

    So myself and other Christians I believe do have the right to say that our reason for not vaccinating is because of God. I think to suggest that we put faith in people who have created things for selfish reasons who do not believe in God to start with is incredibly flawed. I am not judging you but I do feel badly because I feel you are looking at it the wrong way.

    I don’t think the Bible needs to say the word “Vaccine” in black and white to make it so. I think the Bible is very clear on what He feels about abortion and the act of being selfish (like the creators of vaccines who are in it for the money):

    • says

      So, you are comfortable with the increasing rate of preventable childhood infections? You are comfortable with increased morbidity and mortality rates? Most vaccines no longer use ANY fetal cells because of the various controversies.

  4. Ourania says

    Hi Father,

    My understanding is that over 20 vaccines exist, which are grown in human cell lines from aborted fetuses. As Orthodox, should we not choose to avoid these vaccines and opt for other vaccines when available?

    • says

      I do not think that the number is over 20. However, of course if other vaccines are available, it would be better to opt for those. However, it may interest you that both the Vatican and bishops’ conferences in England and the USA have spoken to this issue. Right to Life of Michigan said in one of their articles the following:

      “The Vatican’s Pontifical Academy for Life, and the U.S. and British bishops conferences have studied the issue in detail and concluded that using the vaccines is morally permissible. However, once a person learns that certain vaccines are morally tainted, there is an obligation to seek out ethical alternatives where possible and to make objections known to health care providers and vaccine manufacturers.”

      Note, however, that if there is no alternative, there is no moral problem with using the vaccine, even according to Right to Life. Why not? Because there is a much bigger ethical issue involved, and that is the one I noted in this blog post:

      “The ethical quandary created by the tainting of these otherwise beneficial vaccines is obvious and vexing. Parents are more than justified in wanting to protect their children from these potentially life-threatening diseases. It can be legitimately argued that parents have an obligation to take reasonable steps to protect their children. Likewise, as a society, we must take into consideration the morality and cost of failing to prevent widespread outbreaks of disease. Thus, there is a civic responsibility associated with vaccines and controlling diseases.”

      See http://www.rtl.org/prolife_issues/LifeNotes/VaccinesAbortion_FetalTissue.html for the full article.

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