I have been thinking this past week about immunizations. It started with a viewing of the “This Close” commercial produced by Rotary International in which international figures, including Bishop Desmond Tutu, Jackie Chan, Bill Gates, and others, hold their thumb and index figures and inch or so apart and declare “We are this close to ending polio.”
As Rotarians, my husband and I are very proud that the fight to end polio is nearing an end. We believe it complements the United Methodist Church’s Imagine No Malaria campaign quite nicely, and we are thrilled to fight two diseases which threaten the well-being of so many.
Polio cases have decreased 99% since 1998, from 350,000 reported cases to 406 reported cases in 2013 according to the World Health Organization. But three countries - Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Nigeria - are still endemic, and aid workers in Pakistan are being turned away because the Taliban is convinced immunizing children is a plot to harm or kill their children. Consequently, children (and adults) are becoming infected with polio and the disease is spreading. Workers have also been attacked in Nigeria.
According to the WHO, “as long as a single child remains infected with poliovirus, children in all countries are at risk of contracting the disease. The poliovirus can easily be imported into a polio-free country and can spread rapidly amongst unimmunized populations. Failure to eradicate polio could result in as many as 200 000 new cases every year, within 10 years, all over the world. There is no cure for polio, it can only be prevented. Polio vaccine, given multiple times, can protect a child for life.”
Many people look at the failure of the Taliban to allow aid workers to allow children to be vaccinated against polio as the backward act of an ignorant or superstitious people. But we have a similar crisis here in the United States, where many parents are refusing to immunize their children against common childhood diseases like measles. There is a prevalent misconception, soundly refuted, that immunizations, cause autism. Tragically, people are exposing their children to diseases that can cause serious harm to their children based on the irrational belief that they are averting a neurodevelopmental disorder.
Most parents today aren’t old enough today to have seen a person who was touched by polio, in even its mildest form. Measles, mumps, and chicken pox can have dire complications in children, including pneumonia, meningitis, hearing loss, sepsis, and encephalitis. In adults complications can be even worse. I have a friend who spent six months in the hospital paralyzed from the neck down after he was exposed to chicken pox as an adult. He later regained use of his shoulders, arms and hands, but his life was changed forever.
Today I plead with each of you to encourage your congregations, your friends, your families, your acquaintances, to make sure their children have their recommended childhood immunizations. It is a kindness to their own children, to the children around them, and to themselves.
We thank you, O Lord, for the gift of medicine and healing. We thank you for the wisdom of doctors, and the gift of preventive medicine, and we ask for the faith and confidence to use those gifts wisely. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.