Blog | Friday, March 13, 2015

Getting religion about vaccines

As the current measles epidemic continues unabated, many are looking for explanations. One obvious target are the religious and personal belief exemptions that have allowed for increasing pediatric undervaccination. Yet the fact that many states and other entities allow religious exemptions might suggest that most religions object to vaccines. Miriam Krule writing in Slate explodes the myth of religious exemptions and describes how despite few true exemptions, it is very easy to claim one.

Her conclusions: “The only 2 religions that have any possible negative stance (though it's not even clear that they do) on vaccination are Christian Scientists and the Dutch Reformed Church.”

“In order to apply for a religious exemption, you don't even need to be religious. If you live in Connecticut, for example, all you have to do is fill out this incredibly simple form … In Florida, all that is needed is the child's name, date of birth, and social security number—no proof of religion, or even name of a religion, is needed.”

Irrespective of the lack of formal religious exemptions, when we speak with parents as physicians or public health officials, we need to be aware that 3 existing vaccines (hepatitis A, rubella, chicken pox) were developed from cell lines derived from aborted fetuses. For this reason, some Catholic and other parents might refuse to vaccinate their children. However, this issue has been well studied by the National Catholic Bioethics Center and the Pontifical Academy for Life, who “have determined that it is morally licit, and even morally responsible, for Catholics to use even those vaccines developed from aborted fetus cells.”

Dr. Paul Cieslak in the Catholic EWTN news states, ”While the new measles cases are cause for concern, the outbreak isn't nearly as bad as it could be, and that is thanks to vaccinations. The fact that it doesn't spread to everybody is a testimony to the fact that most of them [who were exposed] are immune, and most of them got that way through vaccinations. And when we have seen transmission of multiple cases, it has been largely among unvaccinated people. As a Catholic, I would argue that it [vaccination] is a socially conscious thing to do. It's not only good for you, it's good for your fellow man.”

Eli N. Perencevich, MD, ACP Member, is an infectious disease physician and epidemiologist in Iowa City, Iowa, who studies methods to halt the spread of resistant bacteria in our hospitals (including novel ways to get everyone to wash their hands). This post originally appeared at the blog Controversies in Hospital Infection Prevention.