In this article, I would like to touch on a topic that is of great concern for many Christians today. There is no way I can address the many aspects of vaccinations in just one article, so I’ll look at it from different perspectives in a five-part series, and allow you to develop your own conclusions. This article will focus on the reasons to vaccinate. The next articles will look at reasons to be concerned about vaccinations. Then the third and final article will discuss various options that Christians can consider when navigating this complex decision-making process.
The History of Vaccines
The history of the Smallpox Virus gives us good insight into how vaccines work, as well as their benefits. Smallpox, whose scientific name is Variola, comes from the Latin, varius, meaning “spotted”. As you can see from the illustrations below, it is aptly named. Think of a person with a Chicken Pox infection, but with 10 to 100 times more the amount of pox!
Historically speaking, many of you may be familiar with the devastating effects of the Smallpox Virus. For those of you who don’t, here are some things to think about.
The earliest physical evidence of Smallpox was found on the mummy of Pharaoh Ramses V from 3,000 years ago. Historians believe the Pharaoh of Exodus, as recorded in the Bible, was either Ramses II or Thutmoses III, both of whom reigned before Ramses V. It would then stand to reason that Biblical references to the “plague of boils”, found in Exodus chapter nine, could possibly have reflected the first outbreak of Smallpox.
“And the Lord said unto Moses and unto Aaron, Take to you handfuls of ashes of the furnace, and let Moses sprinkle it toward the heaven in the sight of Pharaoh. And it shall become small dust in all the land of Egypt, and shall be a boil breaking forth with blains upon man, and upon beast, throughout all the land of Egypt. And they took ashes of the furnace, and stood before Pharaoh; and Moses sprinkled it up toward heaven; and it became a boil breaking forth with blains upon man, and upon beast. And the magicians could not stand before Moses because of the boils; for the boil was upon the magicians, and upon all the Egyptians.” (Exodus 9:8-11)
One of the main ways that death takes hold of these afflicted people is when the pox become bacterially infected, resulting in a body full of pustules or boils which then overwhelm the body’s defense capacity.
The Native Americans
Native Americans, after their first contact with Europeans, were devastated by new diseases transmitted from the Old World. Smallpox was responsible for most of their deaths, and it is estimated that 90-95% of the whole population was decimated! Stories of settlers finding empty villages can be found in the narratives of the Pilgrims, and of the Lewis and Clark expeditions. For those Native Americans, Smallpox was way more disastrous than the European Bubonic Plague (“Black Death”) was for the Europeans, which reduced the population of Europe by an incredible death toll of 30-60%.
In the modern era, smallpox has had an overall 30% mortality rate, with an 80% rate for children. In just the last century (the 1900s), Smallpox still accounted for 300-500 million deaths! Even as recently as 1967, the World Health Organization estimated that 15 million people contracted the disease and 2 million people died from it during that year alone.
Yet through an intense immunization effort, the disease was declared eradicated from the world in 1980! Did nutrition help? Yes! Did improved hygiene help? Yes! But going from 15 million cases and 2 million deaths per year (in 1967) to a complete eradication just thirteen years later was mainly through the blessing of God’s revealing knowledge, and its application through the use of vaccinations.
This is how it happened. The first method of vaccination was actually called “variolation,” a word which means treatment of variola (Smallpox). People discovered that the residual crusts of these pox or boils (on the skin of infected people) contained only weakened forms of the infection. An Asian and Middle-Eastern technique showed that if this material was placed in the nose of people who had not yet contracted the disease, immunity could then be obtained. Because variolation contained weakened (but actual live) smallpox virus, 1 in 100 people (or about 1%) still died from contracting smallpox, through this process. This was still much better than the 95% death rate described above, caused by catching it in its natural and strongest form at that time.
Remember how the boils of Exodus also affected the beasts (Exodus 9:10)? Well, the closely related form of this disease that affects the “beasts” is called cowpox, and people (such as milk maids who are closely exposed to them) can catch this form of pox (cowpox) as well. However, this is a much milder form of the disease, in which people only rarely die. Edward Jenner, an English physician during the late 1700s, noticed that milk maids who had contracted cowpox would not contract smallpox, and were often spared during outbreaks of smallpox. He reasoned that this was because smallpox and cowpox were very closely related. The immune system of our bodies can’t tell them apart, so if someone had cowpox, they would also develop immunity to smallpox, and vice versa. Jenner then discovered that by taking some of the material from the cowpox, and scratching the skin of his patients with it (resulting in a case of cowpox), an immune response would then be mounted, protecting that individual against the much deadlier smallpox. This is how we get the word “Vaccination.” It comes from the Latin root word “vacca,” meaning “cow.” So, because of these progressing discoveries, the risk of dying from Smallpox went from as high as 95% (from contracting the disease naturally), to 1% (from variolation), and finally to 1 in 1 million or .000001% (from vaccination).
Still not convinced? Then let’s look at Polio. While not as deadly as Smallpox, the Polio virus, at its peak, would either kill or paralyze over half a million people worldwide per year, during the 1940s and 50s. While there is evidence that it has also been around since the time of the ancient Egyptians, major epidemics were unknown before the 20th century. Oddly, it was actually a result of good sanitation that caused more severe outbreaks to start occuring!
From time to time, you may hear me refer to the concept of “good dirt” immunity. It goes this way: In our modern world, the environment in which we live has actually become too sterile. As a result, our immune systems have become stunted and weak. Our immune system can become like a boxer who never boxes – he won’t be a very good boxer. The result of this problem with Polio, was major outbreaks in the developed world amongst older school-aged children during the 1940s and 1950s because of the improved hygiene. Polio is unique in that it is one of a few diseases whereby if children catch the illness when they are young (under four years of age), they will then tend to have a very mild form of the disease. But the older you are when you get it, (because eventually we will venture beyond our sterile environments) the more severe it will be. (Chicken Pox is another such disease.) Young children who get polio become permanently paralyzed in 1 out of 1,000 cases. In contrast, people who contract it when they are older end up with 1 out of 75 becoming paralyzed.
The very last natural case of Polio in the United States was in 1979 . . . amongst the Amish in Pennsylvania.1 So how do you get from the epidemics in the 1950s (half a million cases), to rapidly dropping to less than 100 cases yearly in the 1960s, and then to eradication by 1980? Remember, it can’t be because of better sanitation. Nutrition may have helped, but in America, the only real form of malnutrition we’ve had since the 1950s has been OVER- nutrition (but that’s another article in the making). Again, the evidence would show that it has been because of vaccinations, which for Polio began in 1955.
Further evidence? For the last several years, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Nigeria are the only places in the world where Polio is still endemic. Even there, we’re talking about usually less than 100, but up to about 300 cases per year. Not surprisingly, these are countries where one can find pockets of people with active resistance against vaccinations, largely due to their suspicion of Western aid workers and due to their focus on fighting.
Western influence in their Muslim countries. In the year 2014 alone, 89 polio vaccine aid workers in Nigeria and Pakistan were killed in response to religious edicts (or Fatwas) commanding the people to do so, due to suspicions that the workers were trying to sterilize their children or spy for the CIA. These tragic deaths were at least three times the estimated number of people (15-30) who actually died from Polio that year.2 Some of these suspicions were not unfounded, as it was revealed that the CIA used a vaccine ruse to obtain DNA evidence from Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan to confirm his identity before the raid occurred that killed him.3
Someone who has never been exposed to the disease in question, nor received a vaccine for that disease would not have a protective antibody titer level for that disease. Vaccinations have varying rates of success in stimulating a good immune response – they are not perfect, though 80-95% is not unusual. This is called the“seroconversion rate.” It is why you may have heard, for example, some children come down with the whooping cough, despite having been vaccinated for it. Those children did not “seroconvert” – their immune systems did not“catch on” as well as others. This is why we give multiple doses and boosters – to help our immune systems“catch on” and “refresh” their memories.
A Math Exercise
I’d like to demonstrate how one common misconception about vaccines can be cleared up mathematically. The misconception is that, say for Whooping Cough, there are more people who are vaccinated that get the disease than those who are not vaccinated. In some communities, this may actually be true, but let’slook at the why.
A sample population has 1000 children: 940 are vaccinated, 60 are not - typical numbers in many communities. If the Whooping Cough vaccine has a 90% seroconversion, then this means the remaining 10% of the vaccinated children would not have adequate antibody protection. Ultimately, then, 94 vaccinated children (10% of 940) would still be susceptible to the disease. Of the 60 children who are not vaccinated, all would be susceptible, since they have no antibody defenses.
Thus, if Whooping Cough will strike 50% of susceptible people, this means that it would strike 47 of the vaccinated group (50% of the 94 who are susceptible in the vaccinated group) and only 30 of the unvaccinated group (50% of 60). So just because there are more vaccinated children (47) that get the disease, than unvaccinated children (30), does that then make the vaccine useless? No!! If there was no vaccine, all 1,000 children would be susceptible, and if 50% succumbed to the disease, then you have an epidemic of 500 sick children instead of only 77!
One last concept I’d like to explain is Herd Immunity. Think of a healthy flock (“herd”) of 100 sheep, entirely immune to Disease X. No chance of an epidemic, right? Correct! Well, what if, say, 5 out of the 100 did not get immunized, and a sickly sheep with Disease X straggled up to the flock, mingled a while, then went on his way again. What would happen? Well, the chances would be small that the sickly sheep would have had prolonged contact with the unvaccinated sheep, since they accounted for only 5 out of the 100 sheep. So, then the chances of the disease spreading to the unvaccinated sheep is small. In essence, the unvaccinated sheep would enjoy a type of immunity that relies on protection coming from the group immunity of the vaccinated sheep.
Herd Immunity would disappear, however, if there were too many unvaccinated sheep. Instead, picture a flock where only half the sheep are vaccinated. If the sickly “stranger” sheep happened to come into contact with an unvaccinated sheep, and that sheep succumbed to the disease, a chain reaction would occur once the newly infected sheep would pass it on to his susceptible neighbors and companions. The result – an epidemic!
What Does the Bible Say About That?
The Bible was the first textbook on how to create a healthy community.
- Levitical law described how to quarantine people and property with infections that might spread to others (Leviticus 13).
- Homeowners were held responsible for preventing injuries incurred on their property: “When thou buildest a new house, then thou shalt make a battlement for thy roof, that thou bring not blood upon thine house, if any man fall from thence.” (Deuteronomy 22:8)
- Livestock owners were responsible for protecting their neighbors from known hazards (e.g. a bull known to be dangerous) at the risk of severe punishment to themselves. (Exodus 21:28–32)
The second great commandment is this: “...Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” (Matthew 22:39) Can we say that we love our neighbors if we allow infection to gain a foothold in our communities? What about allowing our children to be stricken with disease?
Then there is the Parable of the Talents. (Matthew 25:14-31) God has given us the technology to eradicate certain diseases. Would it be a wise use of our talents to squander this opportunity and be a part of providing the opportunity for an eradicated disease to once more gain a foothold on “the herd” and ultimately again become an epidemic?
Finally, we cannot ignore the fact that there are some real concerns about vaccines. Yes, we have established that they are valuable in combating disease. At the same time, we all know that there can be both minor and serious side effects. What exactly are the risks? Are they (vaccinations) worth the risk? How does this Biblical principle apply: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”? (John 15:13) Is our focus and our motive self-centered and self-serving or are we primarily focused on serving God and others in all that we do?
To Be Continued
For those of you who believe this article has been one sided, I kindly ask that you please withhold your judgement, and remember to read the next installment in this series. It was my intention to provoke thoughts, not arguments! You might find the next article more agreeable. In it, we’ll look at the physical risks, and some moral dilemmas that face us in deciding what is best for our families and our communities. If there is one thing that is certain, it is this: that it is no secret, that there are secrets, about vaccines – some intentional, some not. After I attempt to shed some light on these issues in the next article, the third installment of this series will help us put all of this together – the good, the bad, and the how. With God’s guidance, we will find our way into the future in Truth!
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