Aug 11 2015

Bishops Meddle in Health Care

The headline almost says it all: Catholic Bishops In Kenya Call For A Boycott Of Polio Vaccines. Catholic Bishops, or any religious officers, have no business meddling in public health care. NPR reports:

“the country’s Conference of Catholic Bishops declared a boycott of the World Health Organization’s vaccination campaign, saying they needed to “test” whether ingredients contain a derivative of estrogen. Dr. Wahome Ngare of the Kenyan Catholic Doctor’s Association alleged that the presence of the female hormone could sterilize children.”

Where did they get this idea? From conspiracy theories. That’s it. There is no medical or scientific reason, no credible investigative journalism, and no evidence to suspect that vaccine (the polio vaccine or any other) contain estrogen compounds that will sterilize children.

This is an old conspiracy theory in Africa, based on the idea that “The West” wants to sterilize Africans in order to control their population and keep them down. This is pretty typical fear mongering – based on fear from outsiders who wish the community harm. It is a form of mass delusion.

A History of Polio

Polio is caused by a virus that attacks the anterior horn cells in the spinal cord. These are the lower motor neurons – they connect the brain to your muscles. When these cells die then weakness results, and eventually severe atrophy. The result is a lifetime of withered and weak limbs, and later in life so-called post-polio syndrome may result in a painful disorder.

The only treatment is to prevent infection in the first place, and the most effective method for this is a polio vaccine. The Salk vaccine was approved in 1955 followed by the Sabin live oral vaccine in 1962. Here is a chart of polio cases in the US:

In 1988 the World Health Organization announced their world eradication program. Polio is one infection that potentially can be eradicated because there are no non-human reservoirs. Once the last human infection burns itself out, polio will be gone from the world forever. The WHO’s program was very successful. By the turn of the century we were on the brink of worldwide eradication.

Then, some Nigerian Muslim leaders started preaching that the polio vaccine was a Western plot, that they contained HIV and it was the vaccine that was causing AIDS. They called for a boycott of the vaccine. This fear spread, crippling the polio vaccine program in Nigeria. Much like Isildur standing at the edge of Mount Doom, all he needed to do was throw in the ring and Sauron would be destroyed forever, but he failed to do so and evil was allowed to endure. And so polio was allowed to endure.

Polio then spread from Nigeria to neighboring African countries, and from there to Pakistan and Afghanistan. It took a few years for the WHO to undo the damage, and reassert their vaccine program. Now, a decade and a half later, we are once again at the brink of worldwide polio eradication. The last documented case of polio in Africa was in Somalia one year ago.

However, there are still cases of polio on Pakistan and Afghanistan. The vaccine program there has also been hampered by anti-west paranoia. But it is making progress and we are within striking distance.

So now, when we have clawed our way back to the brink of eradication, these Catholic Bishops stoke the flames of paranoia and conspiracy theories once again, calling for a boycott of the polio vaccine. It is maddening. It’s as if human stupidity is like an army of orcs (if I may continue my LOTR analogy), always fighting against progress, science, and rationality.

Dr. Wahome Ngare of the Kenyan Catholic Doctor’s Association alleged:

He raises the specter of eugenics — sterilizing segments of human populations. He put forth other objections as well: “There are all sorts of stories out there,” he told me. “Vaccines can cause autism. Vaccines have been used for spread of HIV. There are some cancer-causing viruses that you’d find in vaccines. So there are lot of stories. Some of them we don’t know whether they’re true or not true.”

The same Catholic Bishops were warning about the tetanus vaccine being used for sterilization a year ago.

I have not seen any response from the Vatican yet, and I have looked. They should immediately condemn the conference’s boycott and severely discipline the Bishops, if they had any sense. Does the church really want to position themselves against eradicating a horrible disease? That is an excellent way to make them look like the relic from the dark ages many people think they are.


Hopefully we will push through this fear, conspiracy mongering, pseudoscience, and superstition and finally toss the ring of polio into the fires of Mount Doom. We can do it. We are standing at the edge. We just have to fight off one last gasp of ignorance and fear.

16 responses so far