ST. LOUIS (RNS) Most of the world’s religions share some version of the golden rule of treating others as you wish to be treated.
That notion was important to the theology of Mary Baker Eddy, who founded the Church of Christ, Scientist in 1879. But another central feature of Eddy’s theology — the belief that healing prayer renders medical care unnecessary — can be in conflict with the golden rule when it comes to infectious diseases such as pandemic flu.
That conflict played out at least five times between 1978 and 1994 in the St. Louis area, when measles outbreaks spread at two large Christian Science schools, killing three Christian Scientists and in some cases, moving beyond campus borders, sickening hundreds.
President Obama has declared the H1N1 virus (swine flu) a national emergency; it’s already sickened an estimated 22 million people and killed 4,000 nationally, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Though officials believe the wave of infections has likely peaked, doctors say the holiday combination of travel and family visits could increase cases of the virus. And as a swine flu pandemic looms, some bioethicists say members of religious groups who choose to forgo vaccines put their neighbors’ health at risk and threaten the common good.
“Viruses and other contagious diseases don’t care about our personal beliefs,” said Nancy Berlinger, deputy director of the Hastings Center, a New York-based bioethics research institute.
At the same time, others point out that constitutional protections for religious worship easily outweigh any pressure on members of religious groups to capitulate to voluntary vaccinations if they choose prayer over medicine.
Epidemiologists call people who can’t be vaccinated, or choose not to be, “free riders” because they benefit from the widespread immunity of large populations that receive the vaccine. Yet, when free riders get sick, it puts even those who have been vaccinated at risk.
That’s what happened in the 1980s and 1990s at two St. Louis-area Christian Science schools. In 1985, three Christian Scientists affiliated with Principia College in Elsah, Ill., died, and 712 students were quarantined on campus, when an outbreak of measles sickened more than 100 people.
In 1989, another measles outbreak at Principia sickened nearly 100 people, including some off campus who were not affiliated with the school.
In 1994, another outbreak spread to Principia School, which serves pre-kindergartners through senior high students in St. Louis. Nearly 200 people contracted measles that year, including a doctor and an infant, both of whom were infected by Principia students off campus. Hundreds of Principia students and their parents ultimately decided to be vaccinated during the outbreaks, but many opted against vaccination.
Compulsory vaccination for diseases such as measles or mumps has ensured widespread immunity, but religious exemptions — allowed in most states — have the potential to disrupt its effectiveness. So far, H1N1 vaccinations have not been deemed mandatory.
Still, Berlinger cited a 1944 U.S. Supreme Court decision that said the “right to practice religion freely does not include the liberty to expose the community or the child to communicable disease or the latter to ill health or death.”
While the law protects Americans’ right to practice religion as they wish, Berlinger said “it also places limits on the practice of religion when it starts to intrude into public health or the health of (a) child.”
She said another ethical concern was that when a population refuses to be vaccinated, public health resources have to be diverted to that population if an outbreak occurs.
“We’re all members of the public, no matter what our personal beliefs are,” Berlinger said, “and there’s a point at which those beliefs start affecting someone else.”
Christian Science leaders stress that there is no church dogma that forces followers to refuse vaccinations or medical treatment. Those who choose to rely solely on prayer for their health care, they say, do so with their eyes open.
That focus on prayer traces its roots to 1866, when Eddy “discovered” what she later called “the science of Christianity” when she was restored to health while reading a New Testament account of Jesus healing the sick.
Today, there are about 1,800 Christian Science churches in nearly 60 countries, including about 1,000 in the United States.
Eddy wrote that people who believe in infectious and contagious diseases mentally prepare themselves to catch those diseases “whenever there appear the circumstances which he believes produce it.”
Eddy believed that matter is “unreal and temporal,” and that only Spirit, or God, is real and true. Because man is made in God’s image, man is spiritual, not material, Eddy said. Disease is an evil product of the world, but it is material, and therefore does not exist in the spiritual world.
“A calm, Christian state of mind is a better preventive of contagion than a drug, or than any other possible sanative method,” Eddy wrote.
A church spokesman said that although most Christian Scientists choose to rely on prayer exclusively to stay healthy and get better when they are sick, the church does not mandate that choice.
“Health care decisions are personal decisions, and no church elders, leaders or officials weigh in on that,” said Phil Davis, the church’s top spokesman. “This is a church that honors individuality and individual decision making.”
Because children and students are in close contact with one another in day-care facilities, classrooms and dormitories, they are a priority group for H1N1 vaccinations. They’re more susceptible to catching H1N1 and developing serious complications because they have less-developed immune systems.
Today, there are about 550 students at the Principia School, and 525 at Principia College. With 550 faculty and staff, it’s the largest Christian Science-based educational institution in the country.
Philip Riley, a Principia administrator who supervises the school’s student care facilities, said the school was not offering the swine flu vaccine on campus, but said anyone who wanted to receive it was free to do so wherever it was offered.
“On the prayerful side we said, `Let’s pray about this for ourselves and community,”‘ Riley said. “On the practical side, we said, `If someone is feeling poorly, you should stay home from school or work.
Don’t come back until a day after you’re feeling back to normal.”‘
By TIM TOWNSEND
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