Dr. Decker submits this article at the request of the editors. The public press and other religious magazines have covered this topic. We believed it would be helpful to have a professional in the medical field submit his judgment on the matter for our magazine.
You may have seen the pictures from the 1950s of families lined up waiting to receive the polio vaccine. Maybe you even remember waiting in that line. If so, you probably also remember the relief that came with knowing the dreaded disease of polio could be prevented. Finally something could be done about a disease that caused parents to have genuine fear and concern, as well as many sleepless nights, worrying whether or not their child would have devastating long-term effects from polio. In the years following widespread vaccination of children, polio was eradicated from the United States.
Besides polio, vaccines were developed to fight childhood illnesses such as measles, mumps, rubella (German measles), pertussis (whooping cough), as well as bacteria that frequently cause infections in young children. A quick look at graphs of the incidence of these diseases shows a sharp decline in the number of cases after vaccination became commonplace. For many years parents gladly and dutifully immunized their children, and it is inarguable that vaccines work to prevent disease.1
However, in the last few years, some parents are questioning whether they should vaccinate their children. More and more parents are choosing either to limit vaccines or not to immunize at all, a practice seen in the Christian community as well. This is a disturbing trend that seems to arise out of misinformation and unsubstantiated fears regarding vaccines.
The human body is truly amazing, and one especially discovers this when closely examining the details of how each system of the body works. We certainly are “fearfully and wonderfully made” (). God gave each person an immune system to help ward off ever-present viruses and bacteria. Our bodies encounter foreign substances all the time which, in the context of the immune system, are called antigens. Antibodies are created specifically to fight and combat each different antigen. Vaccines work on the following principle: inject a small amount of virus or bacteria (the antigen) into the body so that antibodies can be formed, thereby conferring immunity to the disease.
Many different objections are made against using vaccines. One argument is that it is harmful to expose infants and little children to so many antigens at one time when they are vaccinated. However, as soon as babies leave the sterile environment of the womb and enter the birth canal, they are immediately and constantly exposed to antigens. Their intestines, essentially free from bacteria in utero, are in a very short time colonized by bacteria. Subsequently, their immune systems are continually bombarded by antigens. In contrast, a child that receives every recommended vaccine would be given around 130 antigens with the entire series. Vaccines do not overload the immune system.2
A second argument is that parents are concerned because they have heard that vaccines contain aborted fetal tissue. This is simply not true. What is true is that vaccines are produced by growing viruses and bacteria in cells. The viruses and bacteria are then used in some way (either live, weakened, or just a part of it) in the vaccine. Some viruses are so specific they need to be grown in human cells; they cannot be made in animal cells. Some of those human cell lines in use today came from fetuses that were aborted 35 years ago. While this fact may grab your attention, it is not a reason to avoid vaccines. The use of these vaccines does not support the abortion industry. Federal law prohibits the sale of newly aborted fetuses or their use in medical research; therefore, by using a vaccine, you are not encouraging or promoting abortion.3
A third argument used against vaccination revolves around whether or not they are safe. Questions are asked, “Didn’t you hear that they cause autism,” and, “Shouldn’t we keep those things out of our bodies?” Regarding the autism question, the short answer is vaccines definitively do not cause autism. In 1998 there was a single study published in the British journal, The Lancet, that purported a link between the two. A thorough and careful reading of the study showed shoddy scientific technique and data manipulation that resulted in retraction of the article. Furthermore, the head doctor lost his medical license. Many high quality studies have since dispelled both causation and correlation between vaccinations and autism.4
Many parents that refuse vaccinations do so because they believe it is unlikely that their child will contract any of the diseases for which there are vaccines. Essentially, they believe vaccinating their child is more risky than not vaccinating. Regarding this issue, it is of utmost importance to understand two concepts. The first is “herd immunity.” In the United States, the majority of children get vaccinated and develop immunity (“the herd”). As a result of this, the diseases are very rare. Because most of the herd is immune, if a child is not vaccinated, it is unlikely that child will become sick. In this situation, it is very easy to be a proponent of not vaccinating children. Remember, however, the reason unvaccinated children will not contract the disease is because the majority of parents continue to vaccinate their children.
The second concept to understand is that a good vaccine will have more risk associated with receiving the vaccine than not receiving it. This seems counterintuitive, and to help explain this, consider the measles vaccine. When it was developed, the risk associated with contracting measles was significantly greater than the risk of the vaccine. However, because of the vaccine’s effectiveness, measles has become nearly nonexistent, making the risk associated with the disease nearly zero. While vaccines are extremely safe, they are not perfect, which means that there is some risk associated with taking them. For example, there are people that have a true allergic reaction to vaccines, which is the greatest risk these agents present. Thus, the present situation is such that the risk associated with the measles vaccine is greater than the risk of getting measles itself. I understand why a parent would consider this fact and say, “Why would I give my child a vaccine that has some risk when there is virtually no risk of getting the disease?” Unfortunately, that thinking is very shortsighted. If all were to make that decision, measles would return along with its morbidity and mortality. The population needs to accept the slight risk of the vaccine in order to prevent the significantly larger risk of rampant disease.
Because many readers did not live through the era when these diseases were common, a brief explanation of them is appropriate. Polio is a flu-like illness that can cause meningitis in one in 25 cases and paralysis in one in a hundred. Measles is considered to be one of the most contagious viruses on the planet. After an infected person coughs or sneezes, the virus can survive in the air for two hours, resulting in 90 percent of close contacts of someone sick with measles becoming infected. For every 1,000 cases of measles, one to two people will die and one to two will get an infection in the brain serious enough to cause deafness or seizures. Pertussis, commonly known as whooping cough, will cause death in one to two percent of cases. Rotavirus can cause diarrhea that leads to severe dehydration requiring hospitalization. Even chicken pox can cause, on a rare occasion, a very severe brain infection called encephalitis. These are not insignificant illnesses.5
In the medical community, there is a branch of science called public health. Public health officials concern themselves with disease prevention strategies, population health, and healthy lifestyle promotion. As expected, the use of vaccines is widely encouraged by public health officials as something nearly everyone in the general population should do. Some people react negatively to this simply because they do not like the idea of a government funded organization telling them what they should do regarding their health. We all live in a community and are members of the body of Christ. There are people who legitimately are at very high risk if they were to contract many of the diseases for which there are vaccines, such as the newly born, those who are immune-compromised or deficient, the very elderly, those receiving cancer treatment, and pregnant women. Their health and ability to avoid many of these illnesses depend on the great majority of the population being immune, which is only possible with wide-spread use of vaccinations.
Our calling is simple, but not always easy: love God and love your neighbor (Mark 12:30-31). One who decides not to vaccinate must consider this in light of the calling to love the neighbor. Citing passages such as Romans 12:10, I Peter 3:8, and Colossians 3:12 which command us to be merciful towards each other, the Heidelberg Catechism’s explanation of the sixth commandment (“Thou shalt not kill”) in Q&A 107 calls the believer to “prevent his [the neighbor’s] hurt as much as in us lies.” As previously stated, it is easy to decide not to vaccinate when the risk of getting the disease is small. However, the more people that forego vaccinations, the more at risk the population is to have these illnesses become more prevalent. One case of whooping cough in a newborn who was in a nursery with an unvaccinated child, and this problem immediately becomes quite serious. The risk is real.
God has given us amazing bodies, and throughout time has given us the ability to understand even the most detailed aspects of its smallest parts. He has given us the gift of medicines, surgeries, therapies, treatments—and, yes, vaccines. May we all use these gifts wisely as we strive to make decisions that are best for our children, our family, the body of Christ, and the community at large.
1 One disclaimer before continuing. There are two vaccines that could be considered as “lifestyle vaccines”—hepatitis B and human papilloma virus (HPV). Hepatitis B is an infection contracted by IV drug use, contaminated blood products, or sexual activity. Human papillomavirus is a sexually transmitted virus that causes genital warts and cervical cancer. Because these illnesses can be prevented by abstaining from certain activities and maintaining a certain lifestyle, vaccines are not vital to limiting the spread of the disease. The rest of the vaccines fight illnesses that are passed through contact with air particles or bodily fluids such as sputum, nasal secretions, or gastrointestinal fluids. For the sake of this paper, when I speak of vaccines, I am referring to the latter group.