On Vaccines and Immunity, Thoughts from East Africa

I once sat in a meeting where a doctor told a group of mothers that they should vaccinate their children. The majority of the women, or at least those who were most vocal, were incensed. How dare he?


I was shocked. Confused. Way out of my cultural expertise. And I was in Minnesota. I thought people would be grateful for the protection they are given in the US for an affordable price.

In Djibouti and Somalia, vaccination campaigns are sometimes announced from speakers mounted on police cars or taxi cabs. Entire schools are vaccinated at the same time. Homes are marked with X’s that show the children there have been vaccinated. People want to be vaccinated, once they understand what the vaccination does.

Because here, we see what happens when vaccinations aren’t given. In Djibouti vaccination percentages hover in the low 80’s. Not the worst in the world but low enough that we can see what these diseases do to the body. Polio, measles, hepatitis…preventable diseases that wreak havoc on children and families because of the lack of vaccinations, especially in rural areas.

When someone tells me, in the US, that they don’t need to vaccinate because we don’t have those diseases here anymore, I want to say, “The reason we don’t see those diseases is because of vaccines.” Kristen Howerton of Rage Against the Minivan quoted this statistic: “It is estimated that before vaccines and antibiotics more than 70% of children died before the age of five.” It is an incalculable privilege to be able to raise our kids in a time without rampant diseases that blind, maim, and kill. The diseases have not been eradicated, our kids are simply protected. And they aren’t protected because of some imaginary ‘super immune system’ or because they are being raised in an illusion of isolation. They are protected because of vaccines.

And now? Measles is back. Cases in Chicago. Disneyland. Americans might be inclined to not take this seriously. But they took ebola seriously and that was thousands of miles away. Measles is more transmissible than ebola. The way people think about vaccines and disease is complicated but I believe it has to do with race, class, the idol of safety, and the illusion of superiority or elite untouchability.

For class and race, here is a quote from Eula Biss in On Immunity: An Inoculation

Unvaccinated children, a 2004 analysis of CDC data reveals, are more likely to be white, to have an older married mother with a college education, and to live in a household with an income of $75,000 or more.

Not vaccinating a child is not a personal decision. We think our bodies are our own, individual, unrelated to other people’s bodies and this is a myth. When someone puts alcohol in their body and then gets behind the wheel of a car, this could have a serious impact on my body. I’m sure most of us now have read about herd immunity. Some people are not able to get vaccinations because of health issues and they rely on the herd immunity of those around them. Vaccines don’t protect people 100% but when a critical mass of people are vaccinated, herd immunity takes place and the community is protected.

Again from On Immunity, Biss talked with her physician sister:

…consider relationships of dependence, my sister suggests. “You don’t own your body – that’s not what we are, our bodies aren’t independent. The health of our bodies always depends on choices other people are making.”

And the idea that we can raise our kids away from disease? Impossible. Unless you move to a cabin in the north woods and never, ever come out. Globalization means disease travels as easily as people and if we want to be in relationships, we’re going to have to risk exchanging germs. Vaccinations protect us and they protect other people from us.

Here’s more to read, an article in Time, The Christian Case for Vaccinating Your Kids.

Want to love your neighbor as yourself? Do unto others as you would have them do unto you? Vaccinate your kids.

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