Vaccines have been in the news more than usual, thanks in part to the recent Disneyland measles outbreak, in which one person with the highly contagious disease started a chain that has sickened 142 people so far.
The incident has brought widely divergent viewpoints over vaccination into the spotlight. Though the vast majority of Americans vaccinate their children, a significant number (9 percent) think vaccines are not safe for healthy children, while another 7 percent aren’t sure. Passions run high on both sides: perspectives range from “Vaccines are deadly” to “People who refuse to vaccinate their children should be sued for endangering the lives of others.”
The Seventh-day Adventist Church waded into these turbulent waters with an official statement on immunization, which says that the church “encourage[s] responsible immunization/vaccination” but respects individual choices. The statement makes clear that church members who choose not to be immunized do so based on their personal beliefs, not church teaching.
The reaction from my Adventist friends on Facebook reflected a split on the issue that may be even more pronounced than in society at large. Some people applauded it: “So proud of my church,” wrote one. Others described the statement as “disappointing.” Still others thought the church should not have gotten involved.
In one particularly vigorous Facebook discussion on the topic, a person with concerns about vaccines quoted Ellen White’s statement that even “a particle” of mercury retains its poisonous effect on the body (Spiritual Gifts, vol. 4a, p. 139). (Concerns about mercury in vaccines are generally based on outdated information—in recent years mercury-containing preservatives have been removed from all vaccines except some flu shots.) Another person argued the opposite view by pointing out that White herself chose to be vaccinated against smallpox. (She also encouraged her helpers to do the same, as recalled by one of her assistants in Selected Messages, book 2, p. 303).
Some statistics indicate that opposition to vaccines may be more prevalent among Adventists than in the general population. In my home state, Michigan, parents can exempt their children from required vaccines for religious or personal beliefs as well as for medical reasons. Michigan ranks fourth in the nation for the percentage of kindergarteners with at least one nonmedical vaccine waiver: 5.4 percent, compared to less than 1 percent in several states.
But some Adventist schools (as well as other religious schools) in Michigan have a much higher waiver rate. At one Adventist academy 60 percent of kindergarteners have vaccine waivers. At another the number is 24 percent.
It is these pockets of unvaccinated people who are most likely to experience a disease outbreak, according to Cassandra McNulty, MPH, a church member who’s worked with childhood and adolescent vaccine programs for the states of Michigan and Tennessee.
Could an Adventist school be ripe for a tragedy like that of Faith Tabernacle Congregation in Philadelphia, a church that did not believe in vaccines or medical care? In a measles outbreak in 1991, six children from the church-run school died.
Why Vaccine Concerns Resonate with Adventists
Adventists’ reasons for not vaccinating mirror those found outside the church. Many are troubled by certain ingredients in vaccines, worry about the small chance that serious reactions to the shots could cause disability or death, and suspect that greed has influenced vaccine manufacturers to present their products as safer than they really are. Younger Americans who have minimal experience with vaccine-prevented diseases are less likely to see these illnesses as a serious threat and may view vaccines as unnecessary.
The belief that we should use natural remedies rather than medical interventions (including vaccines) to prevent and treat disease is not unique to Adventists, but it’s a natural fit for some members given the church’s emphasis on a healthy lifestyle.
“If you are following God’s plan of eating healthy and getting proper nutrients, most diseases aren’t going to give you a problem,” said one Adventist parent I know whose children are unvaccinated.
McNulty affirms the value of healthy habits but disagrees with the conclusion that vaccines are unnecessary. “In this sinful and dying world, we have diseases that are so dangerous that no amount of healthy diet and hygiene will prevent them completely,” she said. “In simple terms, that’s one of the reasons why vaccines were created.”
Adventists’ strong belief in freedom of choice and our opposition to government coercion in matters of religion reinforce another theme expressed by many people who choose not to vaccinate. The idea that no one should be forced to vaccinate was key to several of the Adventist Facebook posters who expressed reservations about the church’s statement on vaccines.
“When we hand over the reins of medical decisions to our government, we are in very dangerous water. There is no end to where that can go, and [it] absolutely affects religious liberties,” wrote one person.
I wonder if these individuals would use the same principle to oppose laws that require seatbelts and motorcycle helmets, prohibit drunk driving, and make certain drugs illegal. All these laws are meant to prevent people from harming themselves as well as protect others from the effects of their risky behaviors. But Adventists, like many other Americans, disagree over the extent to which government should regulate such behaviors.
The Adventist Health Message and Vaccines
Perhaps the split over vaccination reflects a broader ambivalence among Adventists about the best approach to health and wellness. On the one hand, the church has invested heavily in medical education and institutions. We run 175 hospitals and sanitariums and six medicals schools worldwide. We’ve spent decades thrilling to the stories of missionary doctors, from Eric B. Hare and Leo and Jessie Halliwell to James Appel and Olen Netteburg. It’s easier to find an Adventist college in North America offering a premed or nursing degree than a major in English or even elementary education.
At the same time, vegetarian cooking schools, wellness centers, and other lifestyle-based health programs form a key part of our outreach. Ellen White’s emphasis on following God’s laws of health and using natural remedies (as contrasted with the dangerous drugs of her day) informs that approach. The call to care for our bodies is affirmed in our fundamental beliefs. Our health message is a core part of our identity, even if we sometimes disagree on exactly what that message should be.
“It is better to know how to keep well than how to cure disease” (Medical Ministry, p. 221).
Unless we take the approach that it is wrong to use any medication, anesthetic, etc., immunizations seem to me an odd target for Adventists’ opposition. Of all the weapons in the arsenal of modern medicine, vaccines align most closely with Adventism’s preventive medicine mindset. Instead of waiting until people’s unhealthy habits make them sick and then dosing them with pills to cover up their symptoms, vaccines work with our bodies’ God-given defense systems to stop diseases before they start.
On the issue of vaccines as well as in many other areas, Adventists may need to give more thought to the roles of lifestyle practices, medical treatments, and God’s healing power in our personal and corporate efforts to prevent and treat disease. Can all three complement each other? What is the appropriate use of scientific knowledge in relation to biblical revelation and the inspired writings of Ellen White? These are challenging subjects, but the time is ripe for such a discussion.
[Photo: child with chickenpox, from Wikimedia Commons]