With measles cases sharply increasing in the US and Europe this year, much has been said about what causes the outbreaks. Topics discussed include distrust of the medical establishment, populist policies that raise doubts about vaccines, and the spread of misinformation in the social media.
Of course, there is more to the story – and a major global poll released Wednesday by the Wellcome Trust, a not-for-profit UK health research organization, sheds light on what's going on. The researchers surveyed 140,000 people, ages 15+, in more than 140 countries on their views on religion, science and health, including their attitudes to vaccines.
They found that people in higher-income countries had the least confidence in vaccine safety, especially in North America and Europe. Meanwhile, confidence in vaccines has been highest in countries such as Bangladesh and Rwanda, where preventable diseases are still prevalent. The farther people are from outbreaks and the more they remember diseases such as whooping cough and measles, the more likely they are to avoid vaccines.
"In more prosperous countries, where we no longer see the terrible effects of these preventable diseases, people are more reluctant," said Seth Berkley, CEO of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance. "This restraint is a luxury we can hardly afford."
The survey also revealed something that brings together some of the communities where outbreaks have recently spread, and which is not so easy to talk about: religious beliefs.
North America was the only high-income region where people belonging to a religion are more likely to claim that they join this belief system when it comes to science when disagreements arise. This finding was primarily supported by the US, where measles have spread among religious communities in states that have allowed exceptions to religious vaccines to participate in the survey. "We have only 1
"There are hugely important lessons on how to bring religious groups to who might be skeptical or question the value of science," he added, "but without them, it can be seen that outbreaks [of vaccine-preventable diseases] will continue to occur . "
With few exceptions, the vaccine doubt has no religious foundation
After Edward Jenner had developed the first vaccine in 1796, he saw himself as a counterpart action by clerics towards members who argued that the vaccination violated "God's will". Since then, there have been religious concerns about vaccines in many parts of the world.
No big religion is against vaccines – but members of several religious groups have in certain cases found religious justifications for rejecting vaccines or used their authority to shut down the vaccine. Some religious groups were also attacked with vaccine misinformation.
In a 2013 scientific article on Outbreaks in Religion and Vaccines, a Merck researcher found more than 60 reports of outbreaks in religious communities. With the exception of Christian scientists, there are "few canonical foundations for a decline in vaccination" in the major world religions. Instead, "religious reasons for rejecting the vaccine actually reflected concerns about the safety of vaccines or personal beliefs in a social network of people organized in a denomination." In New York, the epicenter of the largest US measles outbreak in recent history, the Orthodox Jewish community was hardest hit. It is also the place where anti-vaccine fighters arrive and rely on rabbinic authority to spread misinformation about autism and vaccines. (Most rabbis support vaccines.)
Another major measles outbreak occurred in an Amish community in Ohio in 2014, triggered by a missionary who returned the virus from a trip to the Philippines and to his widespread unvaccinated community, many of them have decided against vaccines for safety reasons.
In both cases, vaccine doubts had little to do with religion – but dense religious communities helped it become viral, causing people to reject immunization and spread disease.
In Washington, where another major measles outburst occurred this year, some Christian patients have signed off from the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine because they are concerned that it is from cells originally from an elective abortion in the 1960s Years ago. Catholics in Kentucky have avoided the chickenpox vaccine for the same reason. (According to the National Catholic Bioethics Center, the use of these vaccines is warranted because the "public health risk of choosing a non-vaccine outweighs justified concern about the source of the vaccine.")
In the meantime, prevalence The lobbying efforts of Christian scientists who have discouraged open vaccinations have helped to set religious vaccination exceptions, which are now required by law in most US states.
Religious concerns about vaccines are a global problem in several countries. Only in three countries – Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria – was it possible to stop the transmission of polio, a virus that was almost eliminated thanks to vaccines. In these countries, Muslim fundamentalist leaders have sometimes convinced people that eradicating polio is "an American trick to sterilize the Muslim population" or "vaccination is an attempt to avert the will of Allah," according to an analysis by Indonesia, a "vaccine-fatwa" was issued by the Islamic leaders against the measles-rubella vaccine because it is not "halal" and contains traces of pork products. (Islam prohibits the consumption of pork, and according to science, the pork products of the vaccine contain a pigskin-derived gelatin.) This concern helped to lower the vaccination rate and spread the effect to neighboring Thailand, causing a measles outbreak.
It is clear that millions of Muslims around the world receive vaccines without raising objections. But outbreaks of preventable disease in Muslim-majority countries have often happened, and governments are now fining for parents who refuse to vaccinate their children – as Australia and some countries in Europe do.
North America is the only high-income region where religious people are more likely to be on the side of religious teachings
The new Wellcome Survey contains many insights into people's belief in science, medicine and vaccines. In particular, 79 percent felt vaccines were safe. That's certainly the majority – but there are also a dangerous number of people who do not trust in vaccines.
"Deeper doubts" about the safety of vaccines were more frequent in certain regions. For example, some higher-income regions were the least confident about vaccine safety: "Only around 72 percent of people in North America and 73 percent in Northern Europe agree that vaccines are safe, and only 59 percent in Western Europe and North America 50 percent in Eastern Europe.
The report also explains the conflicts that can arise between science and religious beliefs. Among the findings:
- 55 percent of respondents who reported religious affiliation stated that in a contradiction between science and religion, they would agree with their religious teachings.
- The proportion was even higher – 64 percent – for people who have a religious affiliation and say religion is an important part of their daily lives.
- The largest percentage of people claiming that science disagrees with their religious teachings lives in the US and southern Europe (59 percent).
- North America was the only high-income region in which people belong to a religion "significantly more likely" to say that they believe in their religious teachings about science when disagreements arise. "This finding is mainly borne by the US, where people with a religion in cases of disagreement almost twice as often believe in their religious teachings (60 percent) as science (32 percent)."
Saad Omer, director of The Yale Institute for Global Health, which was not involved in the survey, found that even intractable non-religious groups have experienced major outbreaks, "although it has extensive data who prove that they are mainly religious communities ".  "Public health can not afford to ignore the potential for working with religious leaders," he added. "Although the problem may not be the religion itself, religion is an organizational opportunity for community gathering, and this means that public health has the opportunity to intervene and collaborate with communities."