News outlets are reporting an increase in the cases of vaccine-preventable diseases – and some outbreaks – from Thailand and Indonesia due to religious concerns about vaccinations. In both countries, Muslim religious authorities have declared vaccines to be unacceptable since, according to them, vaccines contain pork-derived products. In Islam, consuming pork is forbidden.
Islam is not the only religion in the world that has come into friction with vaccine recommendations. Of the major religions practiced in the United States, only the Church of Christ, Scientist (whose adherents are known as “Christian Scientists”) and the Dutch Reformed Church are the two religious groups that openly discourage vaccination. Islam in the United States, for the most part, has not opposed vaccination under the principle of necessity, meaning that vaccines are necessary for health, so they cannot be prohibited by religious law.
In 2017, Islamic leaders signed the Dakar Declaration on Vaccination, a document explaining the necessity for vaccination to protect children from infectious diseases and laying out religious jurisprudence regarding the use of vaccines. It basically boils down to the need for vaccines, the historical precedent for vaccination (e.g. variolation practiced in Turkey and introduced to England by Lady Montagu), and the responsibility of parents to do what is best for their children.
At the end of the day, this boils down to the age-old conflict between science and religion. Some religions, like the Catholic Church, have established very clear support for vaccination because the risks of not vaccinating outweigh the religious concerns of using them. Other religions are not very clear. Add to that the fact that vaccine science is difficult to explain to a lay audience, and you end up with very well-intentioned people who risk the health and well-being of themselves, their children or their community, by not vaccinating. While this may seem very confusing to non-religious people, the concerns of strict adherents to a religion are valid and should be addressed by public health and medical workers.
Perhaps a similar declaration in Southeast Asia like the Dakar Declaration (which was mainly concerned about Africa) would go a long way toward easing the concerns of communities in Thailand and Indonesia (and elsewhere in the region) when it comes to vaccines and religion.