Vaccination: the Catholic perspective

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock

Dear Father, I know couples who prefer not to have their children vaccinated against certain illnesses because of the dangers these vaccinations can represent for the child. I was considering whether to do the same myself. Do you have any thoughts on this? 

There are some parents who prefer not to take the risk of having their children vaccinated against various illnesses because of the dangers, sometimes serious, that these vaccinations can represent.

That is their choice.

But they should take into account a number of considerations.

Practically everything we do has some element of risk, from carrying a child in the womb and giving birth to him or her, to undergoing surgery, to taking certain medications, to eating at a restaurant, to travelling by train or bus, to driving a car or crossing the street.

In all these cases we understand that there are risks but on balance we make the judgment that the benefits outweigh the risks.

Something similar can be said for vaccinating a child.

Here there may be risks associated with the vaccination itself but the risks associated with not vaccinating and the child, or later the adult, coming down with the illness are far greater.

For example, diseases such as measles and whooping cough are serious and potentially fatal.

Likewise, parents may worry that the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine can cause encephalitis, but that risk is about one in a million, whereas the risk of encephalitis if the child catches measles is one in 2000.

Of those with encephalitis one in 10 will die and four in 10 will have permanent brain damage.

What is more, the program of virtually universal vaccination of children in many countries has lowered the incidence of childhood illnesses dramatically, and if the level of vaccination were to fall significantly, epidemics of these diseases could reappear, with serious consequences.

In 2003 the Pontifical Academy for Life was asked by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to undertake a study of the morality of using vaccines produced from aborted foetuses in the vaccination of children.

In its report the academy spoke of the importance of children’s vaccinations in general.

It mentioned, for example, the effects of German measles, or rubella, which it described as “one of the most pathological infective agents for the embryo and foetus.”

When a pregnant woman catches rubella, especially during the first trimester, the risk of foetal infection is very high (approximately 95 per cent), leading to the foetus contracting congenital rubella with a host of severe consequences.

For example, during a severe epidemic of German measles in the United States in 1964 there were 20,000 cases of congenital rubella resulting in 2100 neonatal deaths, 11,600 cases of deafness, 3580 cases of blindness and 1800 cases of mental impairment.

It was this epidemic that brought the push for the development of a vaccine against rubella.

The report said that the severity of congenital rubella and the handicaps which it can cause “justify systematic vaccination against such a sickness” since it is almost impossible to avoid the infection of a pregnant woman if she comes in contact with someone with rubella.

“Therefore, one tries to prevent transmission by suppressing the reservoir of infection among children who have not been vaccinated, by means of early immunisation of all children (universal vaccination).

“Universal vaccination has resulted in a considerable fall in the incidence of congenital rubella, with a general incidence reduced to less than five cases per 100,000 live births.”

In a footnote the report warned that the foetus could contract congenital rubella if the pregnant woman entered into contact, even briefly, with a child who had not been immunised and was carrying the virus.

“In this case, the parents who did not accept the vaccination of their own children become responsible for the malformations in question, and for the subsequent abortion of foetuses, when they have been discovered to be malformed.”

All of this should be taken into account when considering whether to have one’s children vaccinated. It is a decision not to be taken lightly.