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Ethical Issues and Vaccines

Cultural Perspectives on Vaccination

Last updated 19 April 2022

Public opinions about vaccination include varied and deep-seated beliefs, due to the tension between divergent cultural viewpoints and value systems. Several key cultural perspectives on vaccination stem from (1) individual rights and public health stances toward vaccination, (2) various religious standpoints and vaccine objections, and (3) suspicion and mistrust of vaccines among different U.S. and global cultures and communities. 


Individual versus Public Health Stances

Many countries require their citizens to receive certain immunizations. In the United States, state laws dictate mandatory vaccinations, such as those required for children to enter school. Controversies over the efficacy, safety, and morality of compulsory immunization stem from the longstanding tension between two, sometimes divergent, goals: protecting individual liberties and safeguarding the public’s health.

Individual versus public health priorities were first argued in the U.S. Supreme Court more than 100 years ago. In Jacobson versus Massachusetts, a Cambridge resident refused to be vaccinated for smallpox, because he believed the law violated his right to care for his own body how he knew best. The Court rejected Jacobson’s challenge. This seminal 1905 ruling has served as the foundation for state actions to limit individual liberties to protect the public’s health.

The tension exists because public health regulations aim to protect as many people as possible, but sometimes they privilege group needs over individual preferences. In the case of vaccination, mandates sacrifice individual autonomy to protect communities from disease. Unvaccinated individuals pose risks to children or people with medical contraindications who can’t be vaccinated, as well as vaccinated individuals (vaccines are not 100% effective). 

Yet all public health interventions, including vaccination, include health risks. Individualism is also a strong tenet of U.S. citizens’ ideals and values. Thus, individuals want to exercise their right to protect themselves and/or their children if they do not accept existing medical evidence about the relative safety of vaccines, or if their ideological beliefs do not support vaccination.

Good public health policies balance both individual rights and community needs. Therefore, public health officials must recognize and respect diverse social and cultural perspectives toward immunization policies, to help support their success and acceptance.


Religious Perspectives and Vaccine Objections

Certain religions and belief systems promote alternative perspectives toward vaccination. Religious objections to vaccines are generally based on (1) the ethical dilemmas associated with using human tissue cells to create vaccines, and (2) beliefs that the body is sacred, should not receive certain chemicals or blood or tissues from animals, and should be healed by God or natural means.

For example, the Catholic Church recognizes the value of vaccines and the importance of protecting individual and community health. It asserts, however, that its members should seek alternatives to vaccines made using cell lines derived from aborted fetuses. Members of the Church of Christ, Scientist do not have a formal policy against vaccines, but generally rely on prayer for healing. They believe that medical interventions, which could include vaccines, are unnecessary. However, followers are also encouraged to do what is required of them by the authorities in order to safeguard their community's health.

Most U.S. states, with the exception of West Virginia and Mississippi, allow individuals to apply for religious exemptions to mandatory vaccines based on their religious beliefs and objections. Religious vaccine exemptions have risen in recent years. Although adults and children with these exemptions comprise a small part of the population, they often center controversy and media attention. Infections can spread quickly through small unvaccinated social and/or geographic church communities. For example, in Philadelphia in 1990, a major measles outbreak occurred among unvaccinated school children who were members of two fundamentalist churches that relied on prayer for healing, and opposed vaccines. In 1994, a measles outbreak occurred in a Christian Science community that objected to vaccination. The outbreak originated with a teenager who lived in Illinois, and attended a Christian Science boarding school in Missouri. Her illness contributed to significant outbreaks across both states. More recently, in 2005, a measles outbreak occurred among members of a religious community that opposed vaccination in Indiana, when an unvaccinated teenager returned ill from a trip overseas and infected others at a church gathering.

Because of these outbreaks and the increasing number of religious vaccine exemptions, the CDC and other medical and public health officials warn parents that unvaccinated children are at a higher risk for acquiring vaccine preventable infections. 


Suspicion and Mistrust of Vaccines

Suspicion and apprehension about vaccination are common, particularly among several specific disenfranchised communities in the United States and internationally. For these communities, suspicion is best understood in a social and historical context of inequality and mistrust. For example, several studies have found that the legacy of racism in medicine and the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, a clinical trial conducted with African Americans denied appropriate treatment opportunities, are key factors underlying African Americans’ distrust of medical and public health interventions, including vaccination.

Internationally, in parts of Asia and Africa, mistrust of vaccines is often tied to “Western plot” theories, which suggest that vaccines are ploys to sterilize or infect non-Western communities. Suspicion has existed for different infections and vaccines over the past 20 years. For example, in Cameroon in 1990, rumors and fears that public health officials were administering various childhood vaccines to sterilize women thwarted the country’s immunization efforts. Similarly, in Tanzania in the mid 1990s, a missionary raised concerns about tetanus immunizations, sparking sterilization rumors and halting the campaign. And in 2005, measles vaccine suspicions led to decreased vaccination rates and increased infections in Nigeria.

One of the most striking cases of vaccine suspicion in Africa is about the polio vaccine. In 1999, British journalist Edward Hooper wrote The River: A Journey to the Source of HIV/AIDS. He speculated that the virus that causes AIDS transitioned from monkeys to humans via a polio vaccine. He argued the polio vaccine was made from the cells of chimpanzees infected with the primate form of HIV (Simian immunodeficiency virus, or SIV), which adapted in humans and caused disease; and that there were coincidences in the sites where the polio vaccine was first administered and where the first cases of HIV originated. Although scientists and medical scholars have provided plentiful evidence to discount Hooper’s ideas, media attention has sparked conspiracy theories and concerns globally.

Religious and political objections by Muslim fundamentalists have driven suspicions about the polio vaccine in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Nigeria. For example, the local Taliban in Southern Afghanistan have called polio vaccination an American ploy to sterilize Muslim populations and an attempt to avert Allah’s will. Resistance to vaccination has even led to violent beatings and kidnappings. Similar objections halted polio vaccination campaigns in Nigeria. In 2003, religious leaders in three different Nigerian states claimed the vaccines were contaminated with the virus that causes AIDS, sterilization, and cancer-causing agents, despite tests confirming the vaccine’s safety. The standoff was eventually resolved through dialogue between religious and political leaders, WHO, and UNICEF. In Pakistan, Taliban militants have attacked polio vaccination workers and their security forces. More than 70 polio workers have been killed since the attacks began in 2012.

Divergent cultural perspectives and opinions toward vaccination, including libertarian and religious objections, as well as vaccine suspicions, signal the need for continued communication and collaboration between medical and public health officials and the public regarding acceptable and effective immunization policies.



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