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10/19/2007                                                                                       View Comments

Religion: Threat to Public Health?

Reposted from: Freethought Café by J.C. Samuelson

As any parent can tell you, fear is simply part of the job. Beginning even before one's child is born, fear is a constant companion, an ambient ocean that swells and subsides at every stage of the child's life. Even otherwise joyful or thrilling moments are sometimes laced with fear, such as when one's son or daughter stands for the first time, steps onto a school bus, rides a bike, gets a driver's license, or even graduates from school. Indeed, the altruistic concerns of parents are so extensive and diverse that quantifying them is effectively impossible. Some of them are, of course, justified. Some of them, well, not so much.

One of the many perceived fears that at first glance appear to be justified is fear of doctors, or of medicine in general. Medical professionals poke, prod, and otherwise involve themselves deeply in the physical health of our children throughout their lives. It is a profoundly intimate involvement that sometimes seems to strain the limits of acceptable familiarity, or more importantly, safety. Many parents are largely ignorant of the science behind a medical professional's ministrations and prescriptions, and have become increasingly cynical over the proliferation of pharmaceuticals. Moreover, parents prefer to remain the overseers of their child's well-being. Fueled by tragic anecdotes from patients and families whose loved ones have suffered permanent injury or death under a physician's care, along with the desire to remain in charge of their child's physical health, some parents are understandably resistant to certain recommended treatments. This particularly applies to treatments that are designed to be preventive rather than remedial.

In this context, it is perhaps comprehensible that a small, but growing number of parents are requesting that their children be exempted from immunization.

As with any medical procedure, there are risks involved with vaccinations. Adverse side-effects occur at varying rates and range from the very mild to severe. Mild side-effects include such things as local skin irritations, bumps, upper respiratory tract infections, fevers, chills, soreness, aching muscles or joints, nausea, and fatigue. These constitute the vast majority of adverse events. More seriously, anaphylactic shock or other severe allergic reactions have been shown to occur. In addition, some vaccines have been alleged to be connected to autism, inflammatory bowel disease, encephalitis, meningitis, and other debilitating illnesses, up to and including infection with the disease the vaccine is supposed to prevent, or even death. A brief search of the Internet shows that a significant number of people, including some politicians and many who work in some kind of health care profession, believe that vaccines are unnecessary or even harmful. Yet a majority of physicians, nurses, health care organizations (such as the Center for Disease Control, the National Institutes of Health, and the World Health Organization), and governments agree that vaccinations have statistically reduced instances of infectious diseases or eliminated them entirely from a population. In fact, most objections to vaccines seem to come from practitioners of alternative medicine, or from anguished parents who have lost children or whose children have developed debilitating conditions, apparently as a result of having been vaccinated.

Of course, it can be hard to parse the details, but the weight of the currently available science on the topic of vaccine safety and adverse effects seems heavily in favor of immunization. The following excerpt from the CDC article, Some Common Misconceptions, summarizes the issue of side-effects:

Vaccines are actually very safe, despite implications to the contrary in many anti-vaccine publications (which sometimes contain the number of reports received by VAERS, and allow the reader to infer that all of them represent genuine vaccine side-effects). Most vaccine adverse events are minor and temporary, such as a sore arm or mild fever. These can often be controlled by taking acetaminophen before or after vaccination. More serious adverse events occur rarely (on the order of one per thousands to one per millions of doses), and some are so rare that risk cannot be accurately assessed. As for vaccines causing death, again so few deaths can plausibly be attributed to vaccines that it is hard to assess the risk statistically. Of all deaths reported to VAERS between 1990 and 1992, only one is believed to be even possibly associated with a vaccine. Each death reported to VAERS is thoroughly examined to ensure that it is not related to a new vaccine-related problem, but little or no evidence suggests that vaccines have contributed to any of the reported deaths. The Institute of Medicine in its 1994 report states that the risk of death from vaccines is "extraordinarily low."


That science supports the continued use of vaccines is no doubt cold comfort to bereaved parents, whose stories would be compelling even in the absence of controversy. Yet just as compelling are the stories of those parents who have lost children to disease due to a lack of immunization, or are now caring for infected children. Their anguish is no less poignant and should not be overlooked. Combined with the knowledge that outbreaks still occur, and that before the advent of vaccines, millions were lost or permanently scarred by disease on an almost yearly basis, this provides a strong argument in favor of immunization. Even many of the most fervent advocates against vaccinations are usually willing to acknowledge the overall societal benefits of immunization, which include the virtual elimination of smallpox and polio and the sharp reduction in outbreaks of other diseases in industrialized countries.

The key component of the controversy seems to revolve around contamination and/or infection from vaccine preservatives or similar causes related to quality of either the caregiver or the product. Re-use of needles is not uncommon in some parts of the world, and mercury-based ingredients are often cited as a cause of debilitating conditions. But these are problems that can be solved through adequate education concerning sanitation, and improvements in the development of vaccines. It is very conceivable that continued innovations and education concerning vaccines will eventually lead to the eradication of more diseases, and that serious side-effects may become so rare as to be negligible.

Nevertheless, perhaps rigorous research into any connection between immunizations and autoimmune reactions is still called for. No parent should ever be asked to preside at the funeral of their child, least of all when death may have been the result of doing what they thought was the right thing. With respect to this issue, there is no substitute for good science.

It is within this much larger context that religion makes its appearance in a rather powerful and disturbing way. Mentioned above was the fact that a growing number of parents are requesting exemptions from vaccination. According to an article by the Associated Press, these parents are objecting on religious grounds.

Every state requires children to be immunized against a variety of diseases before being allowed to attend school. But most also allow parents to opt out of immunizing their children on one or more grounds, including medical, religious, or personal/philosophical reasons. Of the roughly 28 states that allow only medical or religious exemptions, the AP found that 20 showed a two or three-fold increase in claims for a religious exemption. Perhaps not surprisingly, many of these claims are not genuine, but are still granted. Parental fear of the dangers perceived to be associated with immunization has resulted in some taking advantage of the religious exemption designed for those with genuine religious sensitivities.

It may be argued that these parents are simply doing what is necessary to protect their children, at least in their eyes. To be sure, that some are taking advantage of a religious exemption is no indication that religion itself is at fault. Yet the primary point isn't just that some appear to putting themselves, their children, and their surrounding communities at risk at all, dishonestly or not. Rather, the point is that religion is an absolutely terrible excuse for an exemption in the first place.

Some religious groups are well-known for their adherence to faith over medicine. Christian Scientists are but one such group. In the name of God, these groups potentially expose themselves and their communities to deadly ailments, and themselves or their loved ones to injuries that only medical science can truly address, merely because an ancient book tells them to. This means that, to them, no matter how effective or safe a treatment might be, it's still not acceptable.

To put it another way, vaccines could be demonstrated as 100% safe and effective and some would still be permitted to object on the basis of their beliefs about God. Religious freedom, it seems, trumps both societal health and parental accountability.

Does this make sense to you? Is it reasonable to allow one segment of the population to expose themselves and everyone else to the potential for contagion on these grounds?

Although the debate between science and religion has raged for centuries, it has been largely a philosophical conflict waged in books, articles, public and private debates, and today on the Internet. To the best of my knowledge, no one has ever contracted or spread a disease because they believe in a 6,000-year-old Earth, or that snakes, bushes, and donkeys are capable of human speech, or that one day a divine savior will return. In the case of vaccinations (and perhaps other preventive forms of medicine), however, it seems that governments are willing to permit religious beliefs about medicine to take precedence over the well-being of all constituents.

The exalted place religion audaciously claims in society surely must be counter-balanced against the risks it poses to that society. Just as those who smoke are prevented from lighting up in certain surroundings due to the risks it poses to bystanders, so too should the religious be prevented from exposing the rest of society to infection simply because they believe in a supposedly sublime truth. In a society that values pluralism and individual freedom, it makes absolutely no sense to privilege one group with the means to avoid a moral obligation to everyone else. A group that claims moral superiority yet gives no thought to the harm its beliefs may indirectly cause to those around them. This is, in a word, bullshit.

There may be good reasons to be concerned about vaccines, and good arguments might be made on medical, scientific, political, or financial grounds against mandatory mass vaccinations. Maybe the same arguments could even apply to other forms of health care rejected by religious believers. However, arguments that appeal to religion are, quite frankly, bankrupt, and turn religious faith into a bona fide threat to public health. Let's stop pretending otherwise. We owe our children nothing less.

Have a good weekend and stay tuned.

12 comments:

isis said...

There actually has been shown no physical proof that autism is linked with vaccine use. This belief is linked to the belief that autism is caused by mercury exposure.

Several years ago a low about of mercury (not at any dangerous levels about the same as in one can of tuna)
was present in vaccines as as preservative. It was hence been removed. Yet autism rates go up still.

A simple reason for way rates go up is that it is recognized more by doctors and thus diagnosed or different less serious forms are being diagnosed. For example, my boyfriend has asperger's autism which does not conflict with his life.

Anonymous said...

My comment on the paragraph below from your article is if the vaccines work, then why would there be a worry about "everyone else" being exposed? Also, if there was an outbreak, then why worry if you're vaccinated? It would only be among those who were NOT vaccinated, correct? In my opinion, it seems more like an attempt to force people to conform to someone elses ideas and concepts.

"Does this make sense to you? Is it reasonable to allow one segment of the population to expose themselves and everyone else to the potential for contagion on these grounds?"

Psycho of the Sea said...

Many lives have been lost to religous zealots. When they pray to their Gawd for a cure and the person dies, they just say it was Gawd's will. They believe Doctor's are for those with no faith. How thick headed can you get?
I worked on the ambulance for 18 years and I have seen quite a bit of this stupidity! One fine Sunday morning my partner and I went on a diabetic call to a local church. They were right in the middle of services when this person passed smooth out on the floor. We arrived and started an I.V. on the person and then pushed some D-50 on them. In just a few short minutes they regained consciouness and began talking to us. Next thing you know everyone around us is hollering praise be to Jeebus. Look at what he has done! My partner and I were really pissed. I don't recall seeing Jeebus down there on the floor starting an I.V. on the person! We loaded up the person and left for the hospital before I ended up choking someone.
I'll take good old fashioned scientific medicine any day over Pie in the Sky Gawd's!

Thanx, "Psycho"

SpaceMonk said...

It should also be taken into acount that many pharmaceutical companies are as corrupt as any profit making corporation, caring more about having their product be the prescription of choice than the actual health of the public.

Anonymous said...

They have good reason to be afraid.

Even according to the AMA's own statistics, over 100,000 people are year are killed by medical mistakes, hospital errors and pharmaceutical defects.

Thats twice the number...every year...that Americans killed in Vietnam.

And as far as new vaccines are concerned, if they are so reliable why are pharmaceutical manufacturers lobbying of immunity from liablity for their "mistakes".
(I submit that if you know its gonna happen, it ain't no mistake...its murder.)

Poltergoost said...

PSYCHO OF THE SEA SAID:
"Next thing you know everyone around us is hollering praise be to Jeebus. Look at what he has done! My partner and I were really pissed. I don't recall seeing Jeebus down there on the floor starting an I.V. on the person!"

You should've told them, "Thanks, for the praises, however my name is not Jesus, nor is that my partner's name".

SpaceMonk said...

psycho of the sea,
here's an interesting synchronicity:

Monday October 22, 11:36 AM (2007)
Man collapses during parly prayer meet

Ambulance officers were called to the Great Hall in Parliament House in Canberra after a man collapsed during a prayer service.

As nearly 600 Christians prayed for rain and for political leadership, the middle-aged man began moaning in pain before a person nearby began rubbing his chest.

The service continued as the man was laid on the ground, where he appeared to slip in and out of consciousness.

Around 20 people surrounded the man, some of them praying, while others in the crowd and later ambulance officers attempted to revive him.

Ambulance crews gave the man CPR before he was taken from the Great Hall on a stretcher.

-AAP

J. C. Samuelson said...

Maybe I spent too much time talking about vaccine efficacy, which was not really the point I was trying to make. Apologies to those who may have misunderstood.

Anonymous,

My comment on the paragraph below from your article is if the vaccines work, then why would there be a worry about "everyone else" being exposed? Also, if there was an outbreak, then why worry if you're vaccinated? It would only be among those who were NOT vaccinated, correct? In my opinion, it seems more like an attempt to force people to conform to someone elses ideas and concepts.

I think you missed the point of the paragraph you're responding to. Nevertheless, I'll respond specifically to the issues you raised as best I can, then come back to the actual point.

First, no vaccine is 100% effective, and no claims to that effect were made in the article. According to the Center for Disease Control, "[M]ost routine childhood vaccines are effective for 85% to 95% of recipients. For reasons related to the individual, some will not develop immunity." Second, immunization rates are not 100%. In fact, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, the immunization rate for the U.S. population across all age groups stands at around 90% . Rates are often worse for other parts of the world, and risk of exposure goes up whenever someone travels to or from a foreign country, or when visitors from a foreign country who have not been immunized mingle with the population, thereby exposing themselves and others to the potential for contracting (or carrying) a disease. Now, let's take a look at the hypothetical situation that the CDC provides:

"In a high school of 1,000 students, none has ever had measles. All but 5 of the students have had two doses of measles vaccine, and so are fully immunized. The entire student body is exposed to measles, and every susceptible student becomes infected. The 5 unvaccinated students will be infected, of course. But of the 995 who have been vaccinated, we would expect several not to respond to the vaccine. The efficacy rate for two doses of measles vaccine can be higher than 99%. In this class, 7 students do not respond, and they, too, become infected. Therefore 7 of 12, or about 58%, of the cases occur in students who have been fully vaccinated.

As you can see, this doesn't prove the vaccine didn't work - only that most of the children in the class had been vaccinated, so those who were vaccinated and did not respond outnumbered those who had not been vaccinated. Looking at it another way, 100% of the children who had not been vaccinated got measles, compared with less than 1% of those who had been vaccinated. Measles vaccine protected most of the class; if nobody in the class had been vaccinated, there would probably have been 1,000 cases of measles."

So, to answer your questions (in order): 1) & 2) Because vaccines do not confer 100% immunity (85-95% efficacy is about average); 3) Incorrect. Even assuming 100% coverage (which there isn't), there will still be some (5%-15%) who will not have developed immunity from infection. This can be a rather significant number of people, as I'm sure you can guess.

Coming back to the primary points I was trying to make: 1) Even if vaccines were 100% safe and effective, the law would allow a person to refuse them on the basis of religion; 2) Religion is a perfectly horrible reason for refusing. If a person has a legitimate medical reason for refusing, or if vaccine lots have limited availability or have been contaminated, that's one thing. It's quite another to refuse because you've read an ancient book that says there's a god who will protect you. In either case, the risk to the individual and his/her community will be present. In the latter case, however, it's a choice based on religious preference rather than medical necessity or logistical impossibility. Put another way, people are afforded the chance to expose themselves and their communities merely because they prefer ancient philosophy to modern medical science. Sam Harris has made similar points when discussing the Catholic church's position on condoms and the AIDS epidemic in Africa.

In my opinion, basing medical decisions that have the potential for broad impact (defined as beyond the boundaries of the individual) on ancient philosophies is both nonsensical and immoral. That said, I think the idea of compulsory mass vaccinations raises an entirely different class of concerns, but which are beyond the scope of this article.

SM,

It should also be taken into acount that many pharmaceutical companies are as corrupt as any profit making corporation, caring more about having their product be the prescription of choice than the actual health of the public.

You make a point that's very relevant to a discussion of whether one should be skeptical of vaccines or not. Yet even were this not the case, if the pharmaceutical industry were completely free of corruption, religion would still be considered a valid exemption under current law. As you know, religious skepticism of medicine or science is concerned primarily with whether something conforms to the precepts of scripture rather than whether that skepticism has anything to do with evidence. Thus, it is an extremely poor excuse for an exemption.

SpaceMonk said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
SpaceMonk said...

"...Thus, it is an extremely poor excuse for an exemption."

Thanks, your point was well made and understood in the original post. I just felt like throwing in my two cents. Sorry if it was too far off topic?

J. C. Samuelson said...

SM,

Thanks, your point was well made and understood in the original post. I just felt like throwing in my two cents. Sorry if it was too far off topic?

Gadzooks! I'm sorry. It's not too far off topic at all, and I didn't mean to imply that either. LOL I just thought that, with as much time as was spent in the article on efficacy, that the focus may have inadvertently been misdirected by the article, not you guys. So, I most humbly apologize for being a "post nazi."

SpaceMonk said...

No, don't worry about it. I was kind of sleep deprived yesterday, which usually puts me in a mood. I needn't have mentioned anything, since you were correct, and also polite in your wording.

I do appreciate the articles you supply to this website though, and your logical clarity in general...