Dr Mwai Makoka, World Council of Churches (WCC) programme executive for Health and Healing, answers often-asked questions about vaccines. He provides some history of vaccines, reflections on the role of faith-based groups, and why children and others are so vulnerable if they don’t receive vaccines.
Why is vaccination important?
Dr Makoka: Vaccination is the only way of preventing certain incurable diseases, like polio and rabies, and controlling highly contagious diseases, like measles. Vaccinations prevent up to three million deaths every year. Thanks to vaccinations, smallpox was eradicated in 1979, and polio will also be eradicated soon. In addition to personal immunity, a vaccinated person becomes a “brother’s keeper” by breaking the chain of transmission, thereby protecting others from infection. The practice of immunization is not mentioned in the Bible. However, the Bible speaks of ancient means of controlling the spread of diseases, like isolating infected people or prohibiting the eating of sick or dead animals. These methods were inadequate to contain diseases that were fatal or very contagious.
What can churches do to promote people’s health through vaccines?
Dr Makoka: Churches can help address the following prevailing challenges of the global immunization programme:
Churches can help people to access accurate information about vaccines, and combat misinformation and myths that may cause people to avoid vaccines to the detriment of their health and the health of their children.
About 20 million infants are still not fully vaccinated annually. The church can use church structures to support, conduct, and encourage vaccinations.
There is resurgence of measles in countries where it was previously controlled (Europe and America) due to reduced vaccination coverage. The church can address vaccine hesitancy, promote life-affirming theology, and advocate for quality control testing to ensure the credibility of vaccination.
Inadequate domestic funding for vaccination. Churches can advocate for and support efforts to mobilize financial and logistical support for national immunization programmes.
Health services are disrupted by conflict and wars. Churches can pray for and support peaceful means of conflict resolution.
What is immunization?
Dr Makoka: Immunity refers to the body’s ability to resist diseases. Our immune system has dozens of mechanisms that work in a coordinated way to keep us healthy. While some of these mechanisms are inborn and rather fixed, other mechanisms can be stimulated to produce specific immunity. Vaccination is the process of administering a substance that stimulates immunity against a specific disease.
When and how did vaccinations start?
Dr Makoka: The word “vaccination” was introduced by the scientist and physician Edward Jenner in 1796 when he systematically studied and documented the smallpox vaccine. In fact, the word “vaccine” was derived from the Latin word for “cow” because Jenner described the use of cowpox pustules or scabs as a vaccine against smallpox. The practice of inoculating people to prevent smallpox existed in China, India, Ethiopia, and West Africa in earlier centuries, before it arrived in Europe. Before the use of the vaccine, smallpox outbreaks would kill more than 30 percent of children that were infected and left many others disfigured. The smallpox vaccine opened the way for many more vaccines to be discovered.
How many vaccinations are there?
Dr Makoka: More than 20 vaccines are approved by the World Health Organization. These can be categorised as:
Childhood vaccinations: These are the majority of vaccines. They are given to children from birth and should be completed in the child’s first 24 months, according to each country’s immunization programme. They are also called basic vaccines, and include polio, pertussis, and measles vaccines.
Women’s reproductive health vaccinations: Anti-tetanus vaccine is given to women during pregnancy, and HPV vaccine is given to pre-adolescent girls to protect against cancer of the cervix. To enhance protection to women, boys can also receive the HPV vaccine.
Outbreak vaccinations: These are only given during disease outbreaks (e.g., cholera).
Occupational vaccination: These are given only to people who are at risk due to their occupation, for example, anti-rabies vaccines for veterinary workers.
Post-exposure vaccinations: These are given only to people who have been exposed to risk, (e.g., anti-rabies vaccine after a dog bite).
Travel vaccinations: These are only given to people traveling to high-risk areas (e.g., yellow fever vaccine).
How often should I be vaccinated?
Dr Makoka: Many childhood vaccines are repeated at intervals to ensure that immunity is achieved. But a fully vaccinated person typically has life-long immunity, with no need for re-vaccination. In a few cases, however, the immunity wanes over time and a “booster dose” is given later in life (e.g., tetanus).
Should I receive all vaccines?
Dr Makoka: As said earlier, a vaccine confers “specific immunity” only against a specific disease. Ideally, one should receive all the vaccines. However, some diseases occur only in some countries or regions (e.g., yellow fever, dengue, meningococcal meningitis) and so the vaccines are only given in these places or to people traveling there.
Are vaccinations safe?
Dr Makoka: Vaccinations and vaccine manufacturers that have been approved by the World Health Organization are generally safe. Any associated risk is either rare or small when judged against the severity of the diseases. Concerns about purity of vaccines or their contamination with undesirable chemicals can easily be ascertained by quality control testing done by public health regulators, university or private laboratories.
Should Christians receive vaccinations?
Dr Makoka: While trusting in God’s providence, we, as humans, take precautionary measures. This does not negate our faith in the sovereign God, but affirms our place as significant actors in God’s plan. As Christians, we take vaccines as precautionary measures, which are themselves provisions of God, as a demonstration of our trust in and gratitude to God. There are, sadly, also myths and misinformation about harm caused by vaccines. This has led to a resurgence of diseases in communities where they had in the past been well controlled.
Are vaccinations evil in some way?
Dr Makoka: Concerns as to whether vaccines may be evil or unethical stem from narratives about how some vaccines were developed, suspicions about the financial interests of vaccine manufacturers, the need to defend personal freedom of choice in light of public health interventions, and the question of whether childhood vaccinations violate the rights of infants who cannot decide for themselves. Admittedly, we continue to benefit from inventions and discoveries made in the past that sometimes used methods that would not meet today’s scientific and ethical standards. We receive them confident in our Lord’s grace that transcends history. Moreover, several key scientists and physicians have made monumental advances in vaccines being inspired by their faith in God. Risks are either rare or small when judged against the severity of the diseases. With every major vaccine, extensive testing is done by public regulators, universities or private laboratories.