Catholics in Kenya Oppose Polio Vaccine for Unscientific Reasons August 11, 2015

Catholics in Kenya Oppose Polio Vaccine for Unscientific Reasons

An article from NPR notes that Africa has hit the one year mark for being polio free. This great news, however, is followed by a troubling report from Kenya — that Catholic bishops and doctors there are opposing some of the very efforts that have made this milestone possible.

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… last week, a polio vaccination campaign in Kenya faced an unlikely opponent: 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.

Ngare is a practicing gynecologist with no infectious disease experience.

NPR’s Gregory Warner notes that some of the opposition to immunization efforts in the area are fueled more by suspicions about the international organizations administering them and the tactics of those organizations, rather than the vaccines themselves. But in the case of Dr. Ngare, while he emphasizes that “regular immunizations are safe and they must continue,” many of his objections to the polio vaccine are the standard anti-vaccine pseudo-science you hear in the U.S.

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.”

When Warner pointed out that his arguments were faulty, Ngare’s defense exhibited a similar indifference:

“We could debate this forever.”

(Nor, it should be noted, is this the first time that the Conference of Catholic Bishops have warned their fellow Kenyans against vaccines, with less than supportable reasons. Just last year, the bishops objected to tetanus immunizations on the suspicion that it too would would cause infertility.)

The Washington Post quotes a Ministry of Health statement that rather admirably puts the situation into perspective.

Any attempts aimed at mobilizing the public against taking their children for vaccination is a serious violation of the right of children to health and survival,” said Dr. Nicholas Muraguri, director of Kenya’s Medical Services, in the statement.

“The ministry of health once again reassures the public of the safety of all vaccines used in Kenya,” he said. “I therefore appeal to all stakeholders, especially the leadership of the Catholic Church, to continue supporting” the immunization campaign in Kenya.

And as for the bishops?

“We are not in conflict with the Ministry of Health, but we have an apostolic and moral duty to ensure Kenyans are getting safe vaccines,” Bishop Philip Anyolo, the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops chair, told journalists at a news conference in Nairobi.

Much like how many in the U.S. use “religious freedom” to mean the taking of other people’s freedoms in the name of religion, Bishop Anyolo seems to think that opposing the Ministry of Health’s efforts to protect children, for apostolic reasons, is somehow not opposition. Of course it is. And, as all too often happens in these cases, the bishops’ apostolic efforts, if successful, will harm the very people they purportedly aim to assist.

(Image via Asianet-Pakistan / Shutterstock.com)

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