I recently got back from a trip to Paris, and was going to write about something related to that, but then I saw this report about the Kenyan bishops opposing a polio vaccination campaign and had to comment:
This isn’t the first time Kenya’s Catholic bishops have opposed a public health initiative; the article indicates that they also opposed an anti-tetanus campaign, once again because of fears that it might cause sterilization:
This sort of anti-medicine hysteria isn’t limited to the Christian world, as Islamic clerics in a number of countries have been pushing the “polio vaccination programs are a covert contraception/sterilization plot by the West” notion for some time:
While polio has been eradicated in the United States, in spite of the irrational anti-vaccine hysteria found in some quarters, it still cripples and kills many people, mostly children in developing countries that have decided to take an oppositional stance against modern medicine. Although polio is not considered to be endemic in Kenya (yet), it is in Nigeria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan:
What Nigeria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan all have in common is that they have influential and aggressive Islamist movements. In Nigeria, polio cases have been limited to the northern portion of the countries, where most of the country’s Muslims live. However, due to an aggressive public health campaign, Nigeria has been polio-free for the past year:
Pakistan has also made some progress in polio eradication, and it has experienced a seventy percent drop in new polio cases this year:
Fighting polio in Afghanistan often means fighting against the Taliban, a group known for disliking anything invented after the 9th century or so, other than explosives, AK-47, and the occasional video manifesto. Whether polio can be eradicated in this country will largely be dependent on whether the Taliban can ever be permanently ousted from power:
I find it interesting and very telling that the main concern of these clerics is that the vaccines in question may cause sterilization, rather than the fears about autism causing “toxins” that seem to be the primary motivation of the anti-vaxx crowd in the US. American anti-vaxxers at least claim to be concerned with the health and welfare of the public, whereas clerics in the developing world are more worried about the ability of their flocks to keep reproducing. It’s like they’re saying, “Who care if you can’t walk, breathe independently, or possibly lose a limb? As long as you can keep popping out babies for Jesus/Allah/whoever, then that’s all that matters.” However, I noticed that, like their American anti-vaxx counterparts, the Kenyan bishops insisted that they weren’t opposed to vaccinations per se, but had doubts about this particular one because of their (completely unfounded) fears about contraception and sterilization. It’s all about integrity in public health programs, people!
I suppose Western Catholics will insist that this kind of knee-jerk anti-science/anti-public health attitude is just the result of bishops in a poor country without access to proper doctors or accurate information and should not be seen as indicative of the church as a whole, but that’s not true. I remember that a lot of the parishioners at St F, the Latin Mass parish I once attended, didn’t vaccinate because they were afraid that they had been produced with aborted fetal tissue, and didn’t want to be “accessories to evil” (see here for a rebuttal to this: https://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/the-other-anti-vaccinationists/). Western conservative Christians, both Catholic and Protestant, have been eagerly using sub-saharan Africa as a proxy front in the culture wars by convincing their African peers that godless liberals and international organizations like UNICEF are trying to undermine “traditional values” and that fundamentalist religion is the only way to inoculate themselves against this diabolical threat. During his tenure as an “active pope,” Benedict XVI used the language of Western values “infecting Africa,” as well as providing credence to views contrary to science-based medicine, like the infamous “condoms don’t protect against HIV infection” comment. When even the highest prelate in the church is engaging in woo-tastic thinking, can we really be surprised that lower clergy are following suit?
Here in the United States, the religious right insists that government should be small, while religious organizations should be large. However, history and current event suggests otherwise. In the case of Kenya, the Catholic bishops are not only actively campaigning against a program to stop children from being crippled, but they are encouraging their flocks to reject science-based medicine, in favor of ignorance and superstition. When religious leaders at the highest levels of the Catholic hierarchy intentionally spread lies and misinformation about public health issues, it is the poorest and most vulnerable people who suffer the most. Religionists may claim that they help the poor, sick, and indigent through their missionary work, much of it of a medical nature, but it would be better to help the poor not be poor or sick in the first place by providing them factual information on health topics and encouraging good hygiene, which includes regulation vaccinations. One reason why American anti-vaxxers can be so cavalier about polio, measles, whooping cough and the like is because most of us have no firsthand knowledge about the devastation these disease can cause. Believe me, if children in leg braces or in iron lungs ever became a widespread phenomenon again, even the most hard-core anti-vaxxer would make a B-line to the Minute Clinic ASAP. In Kenya, I think the opposite is true, namely that death and disease is so common, that the bishops take a fatalistic attitude and assume that nothing can be done about it. The public vaccination campaigns against infectious diseases constitute one of the greatest accomplishments in human history, moreso than all of the great cathedrals of Europe, and there is no reason why Kenyans should not be able to share in this momentous feat.