In his Christmas Day message, Pope Francis called for the equitable use of coronavirus vaccines, just days after the Vatican signed off on a statement by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) which states that the use of the coronavirus vaccine is a morally acceptable. This declaration was made because of concerns by members of the Catholic Church (and other religions) on the contents of the vaccine or its preparation. Back in 2003, the same issue was discussed by the CDF in a statement titled “Moral Reflections on Vaccines Prepared From Cells Derived From Aborted Human Fetuses.”
This is not the first time that the Catholic Church has been involved in the history of vaccines. Back in the early 1800s, when Xavier Balmis led his expedition to the Americas with Edward Jenner’s new vaccine against smallpox (the first vaccine ever), the Catholic Church helped by allowing for its dioceses to be used as repositories of the pamphlets and books that accompanied the expedition. That literature allowed local health practitioners to understand what the vaccine was about and how to give it. Absent that help, it would have been difficult to efficiently disseminate so much knowledge across a vast land in a time without mass communications.
The whole of the Catholic Church is not a monolith when it comes to vaccines, of course. In 2014, the Catholic Church in Kenya issued a warning that the tetanus vaccine campaign there was leaving women sterile. Neonatal tetanus was a big problem in Kenya at the time because of unsafe practices regarding the umbilical cord of newborns. The campaign intended to immunize women of childbearing age, so they would pass on that immunity to the fetus and provide immunity at birth. The warnings were found to be unfounded by local and international public health authorities — and perhaps politically motivated — but it would be another five years until maternal and neonatal tetanus was eliminated, mostly because of the vaccine.
Public health campaigns in general and vaccination drives in particular are subject to all sorts of influences from the populations being vaccinated. From personal beliefs to institutional opinions, who gets vaccinated and when depends on many factors. As the world moves forward with COVID-19 vaccination, it will be interesting to note all the different sources of influence on how the public sees the vaccine and either rejects or accepts being vaccinated.