The recent measles outbreak centered in California has brought up questions about vaccinations. You cannot turn on a traditional news source or social media outlet without seeing a related article about measles specifically or vaccination in general.
In my pediatric practice, questions about vaccines come up frequently. Your Facebook timeline, like mine, is often filled with vocal vaccine skeptics and critics who make us feel like we are in the minority opinion.
So, what is a Christian to do with vaccinations?
I believe they should vaccinate and vaccinate with confidence.
1. Christians should vaccinate because science confirms the effectiveness and safety of vaccinations.
Vaccines work. Vaccines have eliminated a significant amount of suffering and death from various preventable diseases. Let’s take measles as an example. Prior to the vaccination, four to five million people contracted measles in the United States per year. Complications of the measles included hospitalization (48,000 per year), encephalitis or brain swelling (4,000 per year) and death (400 to 500 per year). It was considered eliminated from the United States in 2000 because there were no new cases transmitted here. Worldwide, measles continues to be a significant cause of disease and death. There were 145,000 deaths from measles in 2014 alone. Measles is not the only example. Each infectious disease we provide a vaccination for has a similar story.
Vaccines are safe. Studies have shown this to be true over and over again. The basic science of vaccines is sound and proven. Additive ingredients in the vaccines are not “toxins.” They are chemicals that are found in nature. Your child will get more mercury from a tuna fish sandwich, more aluminum from breast milk or formula and more formaldehyde from a pear than they will receive from vaccinations. Population studies looking at vaccine safety have consistently shown they are safe. The biggest and one of the most recent studies from Australia looked at more than 1.2 million children and showed no association with autism for vaccination, MMR, thimerosal or mercury.
Many Christians have adopted the mindset that we should be skeptical of science. But to be skeptical does not mean to disregard. We should also be aware that the study of science is defined as the “the observation, identification, description, experimental investigation and theoretical explanation of phenomena.” The observation of the natural world that God created (Gen 1:1) and that Jesus upholds (Col 1:17) should only draw us closer to him and help us to understand him better.
We should weigh the evidence in light of a Christian worldview, but we cannot ignore overwhelming scientific consensus in favor of anecdote and theory. Evaluate the evidence from reliable sources, then pray and seek wisdom.
2. Christians should vaccinate because we love our neighbors.
Vaccination is not only best for your child, it is best for those around us as well. Despite what you might have heard, the science of herd immunity is solid. Using measles as an example again, the rate of infection in a fully vaccinated child exposed to measles in almost zero percent. Not zero, but close, which becomes important. The rate of infection in an unvaccinated child is 90 percent.
Because measles is contagious before children show symptoms, unvaccinated exposed children have a high likelihood of spreading the disease to others before anyone is aware that they have it. However, in an outbreak situation, even those who are vaccinated can become infected because the vaccines are not perfect.
The main issue is that the trail of unvaccinated infected children and adults creates a domino effect of exposures and infections that become difficult to contain. Add to that the fact that many who are asked to stay home in order to prevent the spread of the disease are refusing quarantine, which makes the situation even more tenuous.
Children who have not been vaccinated because of the choice of the parent are not just risking sickness for themselves; they are endangering others as well. Others at risk include children and adults who are immunosuppressed due to medical conditions, those who cannot receive vaccines due to medical issues and those less than one year old who have not received their first vaccination.
In this situation, we need to remember that we are our brother’s keeper (Gen 4:9). Choosing not to vaccinate and to hide in the herd of everyone else who is puts others unnecessarily at risk and, as we have seen these past few weeks, does not work. Vaccination is pro-life and pro-neighbor because it serves the public good.
3. Finally, Christians should vaccinate because we don't give into fear mongering.
I realize this statement could be made for either side. Remember that in fear mongering the subject is often exaggerated in order to generate the desired response. Telling the story of a child who contracted an infectious disease and had a terrible outcome is a valid public health strategy. It could be fear mongering but when those tactics are used, it should be supported with data that describe the reality and scope of the problem.
The reality is that the very accusation of fear mongering that is hurled at those who support vaccination is often the tactic most employed by those opposing. Most often the stories I hear are anecdotal, not verifiable. The studies do not support the likelihood that the adverse event could be vaccine related. The strategies employed play on our biggest fears as a parent, that we might do something that could harm our children. What they forget to mention is that by not vaccinating you are taking a bigger risk.
Unfortunately, they often don’t stop at your fears associated with your own child. They will also attack your foundational beliefs when it comes to how far you should go to help your neighbor, your Christian worldview, your pro-life stance and others. I encourage you to not make decisions based on these attacks, step back and think.
As Christians, we do not have to make decisions this way. We can seek out information, wise counsel and trust that God can and will lead us into truth. Decisions about vaccines are no different.
In the midst of all the confusion about vaccines, I believe that Christians don’t have to be the ones who are confused. We can use the gift of vaccines with confidence knowing that, ultimately, our lives and our health are in the hands of our Father.