There’s always been some religious opposition to vaccination. When Jenner and others introduced smallpox vaccination, 18th-century churches often denounced it as a “delusion of satan” and a “violence to the law of nature”. This opposition was, of course, based on Scripture—including the argument that Job had been inoculated by Satan!—and on the view that saving people from smallpox was “thwarting God’s will,” and showing more concern for this life than the afterlife. (To be fair, some religious people, like the pro-science New England preacher Cotton Mather, did promote smallpox vaccination).
But opposition remains among the faithful, though thankfully it’s waned. Several readers called my attention to a piece in Friday’s Business Insider reporting on Muslim opposition to polio “vaccination” (vaccine now administered orally rather than through shots) in Asia and Africa—two of the last redoubts of the polio virus.
The Gates Foundation, and the Bloomberg Philanthropies have been investing millions of dollars trying to eradicate polio from the world, as smallpox was eradicated*. (What a triumph for science against the forces of faith and woo!). Since 1998, the number of polio cases per year has dropped from 250,000 to fewer than 225. Since there is no animal reservoir for the virus, complete eradication means the disease, a nasty crippler and killer, would never return. These foundations aim to completely rid the world of polio within six years.
Sadly, some Muslims, especially fundamentalist Muslims like the Taliban, are opposed to polio vaccination on religious grounds. A 2009 paper in Emerging Infectious Diseases notes that “Religious opposition by Muslim fundamentalists is a major factor in the failure of immunization programs against polio in Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan.” Muslims have issued fatwas against the vaccine, considering it an attempt to sterilize Muslims (!), a western incursion into their religious dictates, and, of course, an attempt to overthrow the will of Allah.
This is serious business, for vaccinators have been attacked and killed. Business Insider reports, with regard to the vaccination program:
Radical islamic militants are preventing that from happening by attacking clinics, health workers, and police who travel with vaccinators to administer the vaccine to children.
Earlier this month in northern Nigeria, armed men linked to Islamist extremist group Boko Haram killed nine people at a clinic after a local cleric denounced polio vaccination campaigns and local radio programs saying the campaigns are part of a foreign plot to sterilize Muslims.
The province, Kona, is now the epicenter of polio infections in Africa as it has refused to participate in the vaccination campaign.
The cultural suspicions may be even messier in Pakistan where came to light that CIA hired a Pakistani doctor to give out hepatitis B vaccine in Abbottabad in March 2011 in an apparent effort to get DNA samples from Osama bin Laden’s hide-out.
“Boko Haram and the Taliban in Pakistan and Afghanistan share a common ideology and common strategy and … their targets are similar,” Shehu Sani, president of the Civil Rights Congress of Nigeria, told the Guardian. “Boko Haram have targeted police stations, politicians, religious clerics who speak out against them and people engaging in polio vaccination programmes.”
. . . The tactics have been effective as polio infections have doubled in Pakistan since 2009, new cases are on the rise in Afghanistan, and a polio virus traced to Pakistan was recently found in sewers in Cairo, Egypt (which hasn’t seen a case since 2004).
The best way to ensure the eradication of polio, as was done for the eradication of smallpox, is to vaccinate everyone and sequester every remaining case until no new ones appear. Radical Muslims won’t let this happen, and that means the deaths of thousands of people, most of them children. But there’s another way:
Pakistanis aren’t so optimistic about solving it through cultural outreach.
“There is only one lasting solution to this and that is to militarily defeat the Taliban once and for all,” according to an editorial in the Pakistan Express Tribune.
I’d prefer religious defeat (i.e., the disappearance of Islam), but that won’t happen anytime soon. In the meantime, it’s pretty clear that without religion, we’d have no polio. Religion not only poisons everything, but infects everything as well.
*A really good book on the history of smallpox and its eradication, which I recently read, is Angel of Death: The Story of Smallpox, by Gareth Williams. (2010; Palgrave Macmillan, New York). Developing the vaccine was a convoluted story (it originated in many places, including ancient India and China, and Jenner was not the “inventor”), and getting rid of the disease is a monumental achievement of the human intellect, science, and the sweat and toil of dedicated field workers.