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Measles and religion


It must be the silly season over at Why Evolution Is True. Professor Jerry Coyne has just written a post entitled, Measles back again, thanks to religion, in which he leads off with this bald assertion:

This is one of the more palpable dangers of faith: disease spread by a refusal to accept modern medicine, itself based on the assumption that God will heal you. Except he doesn’t.

To buttress his argument, Coyne points to a single measles outbreak in the United States, “spread by one infectious case and a bunch of kids whose church frowns on vaccination.” The church in question, which does not oppose vaccination of children but lets parents decide for themselves, has an attendance of 1,500 members, which is about 0.002% of the 63 million Americans that attend church on any given Sunday. Moreover, one of the reports cited by Coyne mentioned that after the outbreak occurred, the church responded by setting up two free immunisation clinics for its members here. So much, then, for religious opposition to vaccination in the United States: if this is the best Coyne can come up with, then he really is scraping the bottom of the barrel.

Coyne then went on to lambast Muslims for their opposition to vaccination in Nigeria. But it turns out that the so-called “religious” opposition to vaccination among Muslims in countries like Nigeria and Pakistan is largely political, stemming from paranoia about the CIA and the United States. In 2003, parents in Northern Nigeria boycotted polio vaccinations when imams and local political leaders claimed the program was part of a U.S.-backed sterilization plot. From 2002 to 2006, vaccination rates in the country fell and polio rates increased fivefold. And in Pakistan, according to an editorial in the The Express Tribune (February 28, 2013) many parents are terrified of getting their children vaccinated, because they’ve been exposed to popular rumors that polio vaccines are nothing more than a Western plot to sterilize their children – rumors which only gained added credence when it was revealed that the CIA had recruited a doctor to carry out hepatitis vaccinations to collect DNA in its search for Osama bin Laden. Charles Kenny wrote a sobering report in Bloomberg Businessweek earlier this year, titled, How the CIA Is Hurting the Fight Against Polio (February 4, 2013), in which he called for the CIA to publicly forswear further involvement in childhood vaccination programs. Despite these setbacks, there are signs of hope: a recent report in The Guardian (4 November 2011) chronicled efforts by leading Muslim scholars in Pakistan to dispel popular myths about polio vaccinations, and to encourage parents to get their children vaccinated. Blaming religion for Nigeria’s and Pakistan’s failure to eradicate polio and measles is thus a cheap shot on Coyne’s part.

I also find it odd that Professor Coyne had nothing to say about how efforts to vaccinate children in the Ukraine have stalled in recent years, for reasons that have nothing to do with religion. According to the latest HFA data, in 2010 only 56.1% of Ukrainian children were vaccinated against measles, 57.3% of infants were vaccinated against polio, 52.2% against diphtheria, tetanus and whooping cough (pertussis). The causes for the recent upsurge in these diseases in the Ukraine can be traced back to a crisis of confidence in vaccines, complacency about very nasty diseases, and lack of access to health care.

But I was curious to know what Nobel Prize Laureate John Franklin Enders, the man who developed the measles vaccine, had to say about religion. Did he share Coyne’s view that “Religion not only poisons everything, but infects everything as well”? Apparently not. I looked up the Biographical Memoir of John Franklin Enders by Thomas H. Weller and Frederick C. Robbins, published by the National Academy of Sciences in 1991, and here’s what I found:

Playing the piano was for the most part a private matter for Enders, and his interests ranged from Bach to Joplin. One exception, however, was the annual Christmas party he held at his home for his laboratory staff, and which regularly concluded with Enders at the piano, accompanying Christmas carols…

On the evening of September 8, 1985, John Enders died quietly at his summer home in Waterford, Connecticut, as he sat reading T. S. Eliot aloud to his wife and daughter.

Does any reader know of an atheist who plays Christmas carols every year in front of his family and lab staff, and who reads T. S. Eliot aloud to his wife and daughter on his deathbed? I certainly don’t. I’d be willing to bet Professor Coyne that John Franklin Enders, who has been called “The Father of Modern Vaccines,” believed in God and didn’t view religion as a cause of sickness.

Readers might also be interested in checking out the Uncommon Descent post, Religion as an obstacle to vaccination: New Atheists continue to propagate a myth (March 4, 2013), as well as the interest follow-up comment by Alfonso. Enjoy!

computerist: Here is one of the many scientific reasons why you shouldn’t get vaccinated
You should at least read the articles you cite to make sure they support your argument. In this case the authors conclude the following: "Reports in many Polish and foreign medical journals lead us to conclude that postvaccinal complications among children can be observed in sporadic cases and that they are disproportionate to the benefits of vaccination in the elimination of dangerous diseases in childhood." also as I skimmed the references in the article you cite I couldn't help but notice a reference to a couple of the most notorious charlatans in the antivaccination movement. Any article that seriously cites the Geiers is worth little as a source of credible information. the Geiers have been convicted of practicing medicine without a license, Mark Geier has had his medical license suspended for his predatory behavior on families of autistic children where he (and his son) advocates the chemical castration of these children to the tune of $70,000 per year of treatment. None of it works but he does make a good living off desperate parents who cannot come to grips with the fact that their child has autism. Outside of allergies, (eggs for example), age, immune compromised (undergoing chemotherapy) there are no scientific reasons not to get vaccinated. Unless, of course, you are in the habit of listening to the charlatans who prey on the desperate. franklin
Here is one of the many scientific reasons why you shouldn't get vaccinated: http://progress.umb.edu.pl/sites/progress.umb.edu.pl/files/129-141.pdf computerist
#4 News I think this touches on something important. You seem to be assuming that all atheists are cut off from their religious heritage. We are not all Richard Dawkins (although he has always valued the contribution of religion and Christianity to our culture and knows the Bible better than many Christians). I like to go church from time to time and appreciate the role it places in our community. My wife, also an atheist, is a long-standing member of the choir. I absolutely accept the importance of Christianity in moulding who I am and the society I live in and I don't think of this as a bad (or good) thing. We all live in some context. So why wouldn't carols, TS Eliot and even the Bible be an important part of my life - just like Shakespeare and the Greek myths? Atheism is not a religion. I suspect some theists don't quite understand the implications of this. Atheists have no rituals,no festivals,no classic literature,no community identity,no common beliefs beyond a lack of belief in the supernatural. Dawkins and co seem to be trying to change that. I don't see why. It seems artificial. There are plenty of other elements to our culture which are more deeply engrained and satisfying than not believing in something. Mark Frank
The outbreak appears to be occurring within a group of families that has chosen not to get vaccinated Real bright.
who all happen to belong to the same church that advocates faith-healing. Hard to deny the obvious. franklin
The outbreak appears to be occurring within a group of families that has chosen not to get vaccinated Real bright. Graham2
edit: no non-human reservoir and no known long-term carriers also a single does of measles provides life long immunity be it through the suffering of the disease itself or a vaccine. franklin
while all antovaccinationists are not religious there is a large contingent which are and within these communities is where we do see outbreaks of diseases like measles. One of the reasons that we see outbreaks of measles in religious communities is because once vaccination levels fall below a certain threshold you will see an abrupt, not a gradual, increase in disease. Religious communities provide a cross section of the population where non-compliance, with vaccinations, promotes abrupt outbreaks. Measles is the most contagious disease know to humans. Over 99% of those exposed will fall ill. People are highly contagious for over a week before symptoms appear facilitating the spread of disease within the purposely not vaccinated and also to those that are not eligible to be vaccinated, due to immune problems or age. Measles is also a disease that has no known reservoir for infection, no known carriers, and no known ability to persist outside of a host. This places measles in a class of disease pathogens that could be wiped from the face of the earth, much like smallpox was years ago, but this won't happen as long as science denialism persists. There are a few other diseases that could also be wiped from the earth with vaccination compliance namely polio, rubella, and mumps. franklin
Professor Coyne is an idiot, and has been proven as such multiple times over. Why do people listen to him?
My guess -- and be aware that this is just a guess (that "correlation does not prove causation," of course, goes without saying) -- it's due to the indisputable and undeniable fact -- proven on more sure and true grounds than tomorrow's sunrise -- that, as my Ol' Pa used to say, "Stupidity reigns supreme." jstanley01
Professor Coyne is an idiot, and has been proven as such multiple times over. Why do people listen to him? Barb
Hi Mark Frank, For what it's worth, NNDB lists John Franklin Enders' religion as Anglican/Episcopalian. I agree that a secularist might enjoy some Christmas carols (Richard Dawkins might belong in this category, as he has been seen enthusiastically singing "Amazing Grace" and by his own admission sometimes sings Christmas carols) - although if I were a secular scientist, I'd feel very awkward about doing that in front of my own lab staff. I would, however, choose with great care what poetry I read on my deathbed, if I knew my death was imminent, as one's death is meant to encapsulate one's life. Richard Dawkins, for instance, has declared that he wants British schoolchildren to read the King James Bible, and has even praised the book of Ecclesiastes as "one of the glories of English literature," but somehow I cannot picture him reading it aloud on his deathbed. News
Gotta agree with Mark here. It might have been secular Chrstmas songs, but really what this guy believed is not that important I think. But, I agree that Coyne seems desperate to find something negative to say about religion here. These guys always lump all religions together as if there is no difference - another favorite ploy to do their best to discredit any and all belief in God. tjguy
I agree that it is a bit much to single out religion as a cause of resistance to vaccination. However,
Does any reader know of an atheist who plays Christmas carols every year in front of his family and lab staff, and who reads T. S. Eliot aloud to his wife and daughter on his deathbed?
Why not? Our family loves singing carols and T.S. Eliot. They are good songs and a good poet. None of us our on our deathbed yet so I am not sure how that is going to work out. Mark Frank
More propaganda from the darwin-worshippers. Incidentally, I wonder if there are any atheists who reject vaccines and if so, do they site 'survival of the fittest' as their reason? ;-) Blue_Savannah

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