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Does Religion Present a Barrier to Vaccination?

Natan Rosenfeld Natan Rosenfeld April 14, 2021
Medically reviewed by Susan Kerrigan, MD and Marianne Madsen

In a 2018 study by the Wellcome Trust, a UK non-profit, 140,000 people in more than 140 countries were asked about their views on vaccination, among other topics. Interestingly, those living in high-income countries such as the US had the least confidence in vaccines. In the survey, religious Americans in particular overwhelmingly chose faith over scientific facts. Why, in a nation known for its groundbreaking scientific advancements, do so many shun vaccination in favor of religion, and what can be done about it?

 

Do religion and vaccination mix?  

 

Since 2010, several large-scale outbreaks of measles, a disease easily preventable through vaccination, have occurred across the United States. These outbreaks were exclusive to religious communities, like the Eagle Mountain International Church in Texas, where, in 2013, 16 people came down with measles, or several large Orthodox Jewish groups in New York where 300 people contracted the disease.

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COVID-19 Vaccine

COVID-19 Vaccine

Vaccines could have prevented every one of these outbreaks. But for some reason, these communities chose to forgo the measles vaccine–despite their religions not prohibiting it. In fact, most major religions are in favor of vaccines, some even issuing statements about the benefits of immunization. 

 

Some religious groups, like the Christian Scientists, do discourage vaccines, but these groups are very few in number. So why do 45 out of 50 US states consider religion to be a valid exemption for vaccination?

 

The freedom to be unvaccinated

 

Freedom is at America’s core. This is reflected in the First Amendment, which states that the government should have no say in regulating speech, religious beliefs, or the right to assemble. Therefore, many Americans of faith argue that mandatory vaccination for certain diseases like measles is a violation of their First Amendment rights, and that states should most certainly have a religious exemption for vaccines. But the American Bar Association disagrees

 

“…[the right to decline vaccination based on religious beliefs] is not absolute and will yield to the interest of the state in preventing or controlling a public health emergency (such as a measles outbreak). Requiring vaccinations does not violate the First Amendment plain and simple, and states are therefore not required to offer religious exemptions to vaccination at all.

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Faith: Patient-Provider Partnership

Faith: Patient-Provider Partnership

Is religion even a factor?

 

Now it’s clear that most Americans using their faith to avoid vaccination have ulterior motives. But what might these be? Skepticism about vaccine safety is likely one reason. Online misinformation is rampant, and social media facilitates access to anti-vaccine sentiments. While more than two million children die every year from vaccine-preventable diseases, Americans refuse vaccinations due to “safety concerns,” while at the same time shoveling fast food into their mouths and lighting up cigarettes. 

 

Proper education, then, is the key to promoting vaccination. Local health organizations could work with religious leaders to encourage followers to get vaccinated. Or campaigns directed at anti-vaccine audiences could be launched on social media platforms. Biden’s White House already has the right idea — they’ve invested a billion dollars in convincing Americans to get vaccinated for COVID-19. Will these efforts pay off? If so, fringe religious groups and rabid First Amendment champions alike could one day welcome vaccines with open arms.

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