Life Wellness

The vaccination problem

Last week I shared an article on Facebook from The Daily Beast which blamed anti-vaxxers for bringing the measles back to New York City. A hailstorm of arguments ensued. Good people, people I love, people I respect, even people I hadn’t spoken with in ages were arguing adamantly for or against vaccinations.

It gave me a lot to consider and even reconsider.

Not all who fall under the “anti-vaxxer” label fit tidily into a single category of uninformed ignorance. Many do. But some are informed and thoughtful, while others speak from deeply painful personal experiences.

As I was mulling it all over, the next day The Vancouver Sun reported on Adriaan Geuze, a pastor in Chilliwack, B.C. who actively advises against vaccinations to his “1200-strong congregation.” He says, “We leave it in [God’s] hands … if (we get sick), he can also heal us from it.”

Geuze continues, “There is no need to make a healthy ‘God-given’ body ‘a little bit sick’ through vaccination.” To be fair, he doesn’t oppose medical treatment when a person is already sick. It’s just vaccinations that he takes issue with.

Before I could catch my breath, the next day there was a measles outbreak in Chilliwack.

Christians are on the hot seat

So should Christians vaccinate? To answer this, a bigger issue needs to be dealt with: how should Christians view medicine as a whole?

I realize that this is a controversial and personal subject, and that I may even offend close friends and family. This is not my intent. As a pastor, I feel a sense of urgency to offer a pro-vaccination perspective from a Christian voice, because it is a spiritual, social, and cultural issue. It intersects with the three areas where we want to see God bring about renewal, and it’s something we’re facing locally.

The major problem with Geuze’s comments is his appeal to God’s providence or protection. What is and isn’t permissible within God’s providence? If one medical treatment isn’t allowed, how can we justify any whatsoever? How do we avoid going the way of various Christian sects and cults that reject any and all medical intervention?

All of medicine is about life and death.

Adriaan Geuze promotes medical treatments that bring about life. He’s not against all medicine. He opposes vaccinations because they introduce illness, which are forms of death, into the body. I think he’s got vaccinations in the wrong category, and it’s a serious mistake.

God is about life. Not death. (John 10:10). When Jesus walked in our midst, His very presence eradicated evil and sickness and death. Why? Because we were getting a glimpse into what God’s kingdom is actually like. These wretched things have no place in the fullness of life.

God is for medicine that promotes life

How do I justify this?

Paul writes to Timothy, “No longer drink water, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments” (1 Timothy 5:23).

Paul has a healthy understanding of how God’s kingdom will come about. He doesn’t collapse the coming kingdom into the present world. We live in between Jesus’ first appearance and the expectation of His return. Only at His return will God finally abolish all things that stand in opposition to His kingdom, such as illness and death.

It is absurd to say, as some charismatic circles insist, that it is always God’s will to heal us on this side of eternity. Was Timothy lacking faith? Was Paul, when he advised wine over prayer? While God will heal in an ultimate sense when the kingdom comes in its entirety, it’s not always true now. Paul recognizes Timothy’s frequent ailments. Not just occasional indigestion, but an ongoing health issue. This is part of reality for all people until Jesus returns.

Notice that Paul doesn’t say, “Timothy, you need to pray more and have more faith.” Nor does he say, “Timothy, you need to accept God’s providence in your life and not combat this illness by other means because that would be thwarting God’s plan for you.”

The earth can be redemptive

Jesus also advocates the use of the earth’s resources in our healing. When He healed a blind man in John’s gospel, Jesus used mud and spit (John 9:6). Did He need to do this? There are plenty of other instances where He simply heals people by His word. Why then did He use such a crude remedy? He is recreating this man out of the earth from which he came. And maybe, just maybe, Jesus is showing us how the earth can be used within God’s redemptive purposes. It’s a powerful symbolic act.

God, in His providence, has endowed us with wisdom and creativity to use the earth in order to combat illness, suffering and death. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pray for miraculous healing. Of course we should. But we also shouldn’t throw our other God-given faculties out of the window.

The risks and benefits to vaccines

Though not all medicine leads to life (i.e. euthanasia and some forms of birth control), vaccinations are ultimately about life, not death. A recent study by psychologist Stephan Lewandowsky reveals the common denominator against vaccinations is usually misinformation and suspicion towards authority.

Unscientific websites and blogs, folklore, and Jenny McCarthy have no place in this conversation. We need to focus on reliable research (I’ll suggest some later).

Before polio vaccine was available, 13,000 to 20,000 cases of paralytic polio were reported each year in the United States. Before measles immunization was available, an average of 450 measles-associated deaths were reported each year between 1953 and 1963. Before Hib vaccine became available, Hib meningitis killed 600 children each year and left many survivors with deafness, seizures, or mental disabilities.

Vaccinations have drastically reduced the shadow of death seen in these realities of the recent past.

While vaccines carry some risks and in some very rare instances great costs, no medicine is without risk and possible side effects. My friend who is a Christian doctor says this about the issue: “Every medical decision is made by considering the risk versus benefit ratio. The risks are minuscule in my assessment and the benefit, population-wide, is staggering.”

Are vaccinations perfect? By no means. They do not guarantee our protection. Do they need constant reform and improvement? Absolutely. But that’s at the heart of the whole scientific endeavor anyways.

Modern vaccinations have not only been rigorously proven as safe, they also undergo far more scrutiny and testing than any drug. Until God restores all things, vaccinations are an attempt to bring about a quality of life that reflects that of the kingdom of God.

Why does this even matter?

This issue cannot be relegated to the corridors of personal choice and opinion. A laissez-faire attitude or an anti-attitude towards vaccinations has effects upon people around us. While it involves one’s own body, this body is a part of society and interacts with other bodies.

Those who are anti-vaccine are putting the rest of society at risk by lowering the percentage of vaccination within society. The World Health Organization says a vaccination rate of 95 per cent is necessary for immunity to work. Refusing to be vaccinated is forcing others to live in a world where vaccinations are not given the opportunity to perform as they should.

Yes, there are times to protest and reform, especially when the government is doing something corrupt. But in this instance? The government and the majority of society has our common good in sight.

Vaccination is not just for you. It’s also for the sake of others, especially those who have legitimate medical reasons and cannot get vaccinated. The second greatest command is to love our neighbours as ourselves. We see Christ embodying this commandment in such a sacrificial way that it was even costly to his own body. We don’t get vaccinated just for ourselves but for the sake of our neighbours, our cities, and our world.

This article has been adapted from its original form. You can find the original version at St. Peter’s Fireside blog

Resources for Further Study

Public Health Agency of Canada – Immunizations & Vaccines

World Health Organization – Vaccines

Center for Disease Control and Prevention – Vaccines & Immunizations

CDC – What Would Happen If We Stopped Vaccinations?

Immunize Canada on Vaccine Safety

PHAC – Comparison of Effects of Diseases and Vaccines

World Health Organization on The Global Vaccine Safety Initiative

Oxford Vaccine Group on Vaccine Ingredients

Vaccines Today on Herd Immunity

Oxford Journals – Vaccines and Autism: A Tale of Shifting Hypotheses

Flickr photo (cc) by Mixy Lorenzo