The Hidden Dangers of Fundamentalism

A connection exists between disease outbreaks and extreme religious practice

By | February 1, 2006

Religious fundamentalism is bad for your health. There are, of course, the ill effects suffered by suicide bombers and their innocent victims. Consider also the sarin gas attacks by the Aum Shinrikyo (Supreme Truth) sect, which killed 12 people in the Tokyo subway in 1995, and sickened 1,000 more. (Yes, I know the media reported 5,000 casualties, but 80% of them were the "worried well" who sought hospital emergency departments because of contact with victims, or consequent anxiety attacks).

What concerns me, however, is infectious disease. Consider these case histories:

» The last outbreak of polio in Canada and the United States, in 1978?1979, was the result of travel from the Netherlands, where an outbreak was ongoing, to Canada by members of the Reformed Netherlands Congregation, a religious group that refused vaccinations.

» In the fall of 1984 followers of the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, who had purchased the small town of Antelope in Wasco County in north central Oregon, plotted to take over the county. They tested a plan to sicken many of the county's voters on Election Day by contaminating 10 salad bars with salmonella in the county's largest town, The Dalles. Although no one died, 751 people fell ill. The commune panicked and gave up the plan.

» In Uganda in 1998, an outbreak of cholera killed 83, and the resurgence of the disease was blamed on members of a sect in Soono Parish who hid patients from medical patrols. The sect was called Red Cross (not to be confused with the international relief organization), a group that collects dead bodies in the belief that resurrection is imminent.

» When cholera broke out in Zimbabwe in 2002, it spread quickly among members of the Johanne Marange Apostolic Faith sect who were resisting treatment.

» Most disastrously, in March 2004 the Kano state government in northern Nigeria refused to take part in a United Nations-led campaign to vaccinate West African children against polio. Islamic clerics alleged that the vaccine had been filled with hormones as part of a US-led plot to sterilize African girls. As a result, polio has spread from there, by the end of September 2005, to 11 previously polio-free countries, mostly in Africa but including Indonesia, Nepal, and Yemen. More than 900 cases of paralysis have been recorded, and the outbreak has cost many thousands of dollar-equivalents in mass vaccination campaigns that they can ill afford. Mass campaigns are no longer needed once a country has eradicated polio but must be reinstated after an importation.

» Also in 2004, the Iraqi Communist Party alleged that the Yazidi religious sect in northern Iraq was facing genocide as a result of poisoning. It stated: "Four hundred cases of poisoning have been recorded, most of which are in critical condition. ... The matter has gone as far as affecting the physician of the only hospital in the village, who died of poisoning." The World Health Organization has investigated and found that 50 cases of gastrointestinal illness (not 400) had been reported in Dohuk in northern Iraq. Thirteen of the cases were from a housing complex in Khanak inhabited by the Yazidi, who practice Zoroastrianism, the ancient religion of Persians and Kurds. The water supply was in poor condition, and it was contaminated with sewage, not poison. This is particularly ironic because, according to the tenets of Zoroastrianism, in order to conserve the purity of water, fire, and earth, the dead cannot be immersed, cremated, or buried; Herodotus noted that the Persians do not urinate or spit in rivers. So the Yazidis would have been expected to take particular care with their water supply.

» In May 2005, a rubella outbreak in a cluster of unvaccinated religious communities in southwestern Ontario, Canada, also probably originated from the Netherlands in the same way as the polio cases a quarter-century earlier.

The moral of this story: If you are a religious fundamentalist and care about your health, don't believe every rumor you hear, don't refuse vaccination or treatment, and keep your water supply clean.

Jack Woodall is the director of the Nucleus for the Investigation of Emerging Infectious Diseases in the department of medical biochemistry at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. jwoodall@the-scientist.com

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