Religious antivax sect implicated in deaths of 100 children

By Phil Plait | March 11, 2010 11:30 am

Word from New Zealand Zimbabwe is that a religious sect there — which believes in prayer over vaccinations — may be responsible for the deaths of over one hundred children from measles.

I believe people have the right to practice their religious beliefs… up until they start to hurt others. It has been proven over and again that prayer does nothing to heal disease over the placebo effect, while vaccinations have saved hundreds of millions of people. That’s math I can do pretty easily.

If this story is true, I certainly hope that the people involved are introduced to the inside of a jail cell for a long, long time. They can happily pray there all they want, and on the outside those children can get the vaccinations that will save their lives.

MORE ABOUT: antivax, measles, prayer

Comments (59)

  1. RF

    I’m confused… the link seems to be about Zimbabwe, not New Zealand?

  2. Ad Hominid

    The cult is operating in Zimbabwe. The story is from neighboring South Africa (.ZA) New Zealand’s internet code is “.NZ”

  3. Most times, I have no problem with cults like this preferring prayer to medicine. It’s only themselves that will be killed. The sticking points, however, are when:

    1 – They don’t vaccinate, thus putting non-cult members at risk. If we wanted to rely on prayers to avoid illness, we’d join your cult. So don’t spread your diseases to the rest of the world because you “haven’t prayed enough.”

    2 – They go the “prayer not medicine” route on young children. This one’s more of a gray area because I think parents should choose their child’s medical treatment options. That said, the child is being herded into a “solution” that doesn’t work. They are denied information and possible can’t make the decisions for themselves anyway (due to age).

    But if you have diabetes, feel free to ditch the insulin, skip any ER visits and pray really, really hard to be cured. Of course, if your illness gets worse (and it will), don’t expect that the medical community will be there to save you at the last second.

  4. Katharine

    Goodness knows they’re some kind of wacky over in Zimbabwe.

  5. Andy

    I understand what you are saying. My kids all have vaccinations, as do myself and my wife. However, there must to be parental choice when raising kids. Must – full stop. The alternative is just too scary. “Hi, I’m from the government and I’m here to inject your kids with X.”

    Protect the kids is a fine rallying cry, but we need to be a bit smarter about the consequences of forcing things on people. Even religious or antivax nutters.

    The trouble with fighting for human freedom is that one spends most of one’s time defending scoundrels. For it is against scoundrels that oppressive laws are first aimed, and oppression must be stopped at the beginning if it is to be stopped at all.
    — H. L. Mencken

  6. sophia8

    It’s not just measles these loons are spreading:

    The religious sect is practicing what researchers have proved to be the driving forces of the HIV epidemic here in Southern Africa including early marriages, polygamy, multiple concurrent partnerships (MCP), unsafe sex and transgenerational sex.
    To make matters worse, members of the group don’t seek any medical attention once they have fallen sick nor do their women attend antenatal clinics when pregnant making it difficult to track the HIV prevalence within the group. They continue to miss out on other health services such as check-ups for cancer, TB or sexually transmitted infections (STIs) including HIV.
    Most important of all, is that they are well known cross border or inter-city traders, who use the normal buses and trucks to travel between countries in the region. They usually spend more than a week at trading markets in most of the countries they do business…..
    …..They belong to a few groups of working people that can afford to abuse alcohol and other drugs, pay for sex usually unsafe sex as most of them have never been educated about the importance of condom use to prevent HIV, avoid re-infection for those already infected. Their religion doesn’t encourage condom use.

    (From here)

    They aren’t anti-vax so much as anti-Western, anti-science, anti-reason……

  7. Michel

    yuck, this news makes me sick

  8. Given the information that sophia8 posted, I’d like to slightly alter my position. The religious groups that favor prayer over medicine, usually don’t attract my wrath. However, if your members are spreading AIDs and other STDs via unsafe sex (especially via paid-for sex), then a crack down is needed. What kind of religion sees nothing wrong with paying for sex so long as you don’t use a condom?!!

  9. David Mac

    Are we dealing with New Zealand or Zimbabwe here? Confusing a whole country seems to be a bit of a knee jerk reaction Phil. I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t let others get away with such errors.

  10. Every country and region has its superstitious beliefs. The problem is that some superstitious beliefs are more directly harmful than others. If this story turns out to be true (given some of the other things going on in that region, I wouldn’t be surprised), it is absolutely horrible.

  11. Hi!

    Terrible as this is, I just want to point out that it’s not in New Zealand – It looks like South Africa (which makes more sense).

    New Zealand is a (fairly) secular country and this sort of crap (probably) wouldn’t happen here.

    Cheers!

    Danny

  12. Russell

    Sorry, I fail to see a link between Zimbabwe and New Zealand?

    One’s a third-world country run by a complete idiot…and the other’s a country in Africa. (Rimshot!)

    Perhaps it’s time to rename this blog Bad Geography…

  13. Grizzly

    The article mentions Zimbabwe, though… I can understand the NZ / ZA perhaps, but nowhere in the article is New Zealand mentioned.

    Zimbabwe has a heck of a lot more problems than just this sect.

  14. Joseph

    Heh, I live in New Zealand, and read this and thought WTF???
    But it is not NZ after all.

    Cheers,
    Joseph

  15. davem

    Bad as this is, Zimbabwe has far greater problems – widespread AIDS and Cholera, to name but two. Did anyone in the UK see the programme ‘Forgotten Children of Zimbabwe’? It was so sad as to make you weep. Hearing some young child saying that things were easier now that her mother had died (of cholera), and now she only had to look after her baby sister (who was clearly dying of cholera too).

  16. I was about ready to march on parliament over this, till I realised it wasnt here at all. Doesnt make it any better though for the poor dead kids.

  17. jcm

    If this story is true, I certainly hope that the people involved are introduced to the inside of a jail cell for a long, long time. They can happily pray there all they want, and on the outside those children can get the vaccinations that will save their lives.

    I’m pessimistic that this religious sect get what they deserve and spend the rest of their lives in the crowbar hotel.

  18. TS

    I always mix-up Zimbabwe and New Zealand too. Man are my ears red when the taxi driver laughs at me at the airport for asking him to drive me to Wellington Harbour.

  19. David D.

    New Zealand? There is no mention of New Zealand in the article at all.

    Kinda like that story about the glaciers melting in 2035 . . .

  20. Katharine

    Mugabe is still president there. Do you honestly think he’s going to crack down on them at all?

    I think religions should be made illegal if they’re a hazard to public health.

  21. Shoeshine Boy

    No, it is definately New Zealand. I read it in a blog on the Internet, it must be true. ;-)

  22. Chris

    So is it Zimbabwe or New Zealand that is next to Austria? Wait, isn’t Zealand a big part of Denmark?

  23. Interesting juxtaposition between one of the richest countries in the world and one of the poorest. If it was New Zealand it really would be news, yet in Zimbabwe it’s just another tragic story from this blighted country. Nothing changes but the context and yet the misery wrought would be exactly the same in either case. What a screwed up world we live in.

  24. trouble

    Can you please correct your post to say Zimbabwe, not New Zealand?

  25. Oops. As many pointed out, I wrote New Zealand (where the article was published) instead of Zimbabwe. I fixed it. Sorry it took so long, but I’ve been out all day on the Sooper Sekrit Project.

  26. Neeneko

    @TechyDad

    Ahm, not all religions are sex negative, and not every culture has a taboo on prostitution.

  27. Grizzly

    Okay, okay I’m picking at nits, but South Africa isn’t New Zealand either.

  28. EmTee

    @Ad Hominid, Danny: Zimbabwe != South Africa…

  29. pete

    i don’t understand. the prayer method worked so well during the black plague

  30. Jack Simmons

    Of course the death toll of this is nothing compared to the death toll resulting from the banning of DDT.

    How many millions of children died from malaria in Africa during the ill advised ban of DDT due to the unfounded hysteria triggered by Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring”?

    See the book http://www.amazon.com/Kicking-Sacred-Cow-James-Hogan/dp/0743488288 for details.

    It seems every group has its ‘unquestioned dogmas’. This group doesn’t believe in vaccinations. Our group doesn’t believe in using DDT. Which group’s beliefs have led to greater damage?

  31. BH

    I may have mentioned this before, but parents injure/kill their kids all the time through their bad choices — not making them wear seatbelts, smoking in the home, driving drunk, leaving drano or hand sanitizer within reach of toddlers, etc. Some of their activities are illegal, others aren’t. So how do we protect kids from their parents? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. You can force parents to vaccinate, but what about the other rotten things that the same poorly developed intellects inflict on their offspring?

    Teaching people correct principles goes a long way, e.g. smoking -> cancer. Leave Drano in the reach of little kids -> they might drink it. Etc.

    Personally I wish the gov’t would pay people to get sterilized, so those who prefer money to children would get it, and the poor souls who would’ve been their kids would be saved a pile of misery — but that’s just me.

  32. Jack Simmons, if you think DDT is a panacea, please drink a quart of it, concentrated, on behalf of my family and tell report back on how good it makes you feel.

    BH — are you open to starting your sterilization idea with your mother?

  33. Ian

    I totally agree with you Phil but there needs to be context here. There are some sects that do exclude medical interventions quite wrongly, in preferrance to a ‘prayer only’ approach.

    However your comment “It has been proven over and again that prayer does nothing to heal disease over the placebo effect” needs some clarification. First – how does the placebo effect work? Last time I looked into this, no-one knew. Second, this does not include the countless miracles documented by the Catholic Church and investigated by secular medical doctors.

    As a Catholic I would rely upon appropriate medical treatments and invite people for pray for me – but the prayer is never selfish, it should always be done with a sense of ‘Thy will be done’, not ‘My will be done’. The purpose of prayer is not to get what you want, but what you need. I would suggest most ‘sects’ do not understand this.

    Furthermore, again as a Catholic, I am encouraged by the fact that many of the great physicians were Catholic … Paré, Nelaton, Larney, Semmelweis, Carrigan, O’Dwyer, etc. Not to mention those that improved our quality of life though drugs or processes – Pasteur and Fleming for example.

    The Catholic faith holds a high view of man’s vocation to science. Far from a begrudging acquiescence to the claims of science, Catholicism recognizes that man is called by God to engage on an endeavor of discovery about the world around him.

    Off soap box now … and keep up the great work.

  34. Oli

    They’re not anti-vax. They’re anti-thinking.

  35. Jack Simmons

    Doug Watts,

    I did not say DDT was a panacea. What I did say was the ill advised ban on DDT resulted in the death of millions of children who died of malaria who otherwise would not have died.

    Your suggestion I drink a quart of concentrated DDT is so typical a response of someone without an argument. You disagree with me, so you wish me harm simply because I’m suggesting a viewpoint different than yours. A rational approach would be to ask why I believe what I believe.

    In any event, many safe treatments for disease, at the proper dosage, are quite dangerous in large quantities. For example, what do you think would be the result of administering say, a thousand dosages of the vaccination being discussed on this thread to a child in one day? How about 10,000 aspirins in one day?

    It is rather ironic you would suggest the ingestion of an immoderate amount of DDT. From http://www.21stcenturysciencetech.com/articles/Fall02/Mosquitoes.html:

    As a result of such studies, I felt that it was safe for me to ingest DDT. I was delivering addresses to various audiences almost every week. I carried a commercial box of DDT onto the stage, dug out a tablespoon of DDT (about 12 mgs), swallowed it, and washed it down with water before beginning my talk about DDT’s lack of toxicity to vertebrate animals. Esquire magazine, in September 1971, pictured me ingesting a tablespoon of DDT. The text explained that I had “eaten two-hundred times the normal human intake of DDT, to show it’s not as bad as people think.”

    So someone did follow your advice about ingesting a large amount of DDT and suffered no harm.

    You can examine other details about the compelling evidence for the argument DDT is completely harmless to vertebrates in the link above.

    It is also harmless to birds.

    From http://dwb4.unl.edu/Chem/CHEM869E/CHEM869ELinks/www.altgreen.com.au/Chemicals/ddt.html:

    In actuality, however, declines in bird populations either had occurred before DDT was present or had occured years after DDT’s use. A comparison of the annual Audubon Christmas Bird Counts between 1941 (pre-DDT) and 1960 (after DDT’s use had waned) reveals that at least 26 different kinds of birds became more numerous during those decades, the period of greatest DDT usage. The Audubon counts document an overall increase in birds seen per observer from 1941 to 1960, and statistical analyses of the Audubon data confirm the perceived increases. For example, only 197 bald eagles were documented in 194111; the number had increased to 891 in 1960.12

    So why was DDT banned? Because, like you Doug Watts, the person making the decision did not bother informing himself about the facts.

    From the second link above:

    Two months later EPA head William Ruckelshaus—who had never attended a single day’s session in the seven months of EPA hearings, and who admittedly had not even read the transcript of the hearings— overturned Judge Sweeney’s decision. Ruckelshaus declared that DDT was a “potential human carcinogen” and banned it for virtually all uses.32

    So we can thank William Ruckelshaus for the death of millions of people because of his very poor decision.

    Doug, you are victim of decades of misinformation produced by the environmentalists. I don’t know you well enough to know if you willingly accepted the propaganda, or were a well meaning but poorly informed victim. In any event, I suggest you inform yourself about the facts.

    To help you get started on your education regarding DDT, here are some other links:

    The Lies of Rachel Carson

    http://www.21stcenturysciencetech.com/articles/summ02/Carson.html

    Bring Back DDT, and Science With It

    http://www.21stcenturysciencetech.com/articles/summ02/DDT.html

    And to all:

    You do not have to be a religious person to have objections to forced vaccinations.

    Some might object based on the notion parents are responsible for their children and the state should respect their right to make medical decisions for them. These should be informed medical decisions.

    Others might object to vaccinations because they are ineffective or present a greater danger to their children than the disease they purport to prevent.

    I personally believe the H1N1 vaccinations are ineffective and dangerous to anyone taking them, particularly to children. I have not taken any flu shots for that reason and would not permit them for my children.

    I do not know if my granddaughters have had flu shots. That is a decision for my children to make for their children. I might disagree with those decisions, but it is their right to make those decisions.

    None of us should suppose we have all the facts parents have regarding the treatment of their children. Perhaps this religious group felt the government was intruding in their lives, a good assumption considering that government in question. Perhaps their flight into their religion was an escape from an oppressive government.

    Maybe they did make a mistake in believing prayer would protect their children.

    But as any experienced parent knows, we all make mistakes in raising our children.

  36. Bob

    Ian, a few points if I might:
    1. Neither of us really know how gravity works, either, but that doesn’t mean I can jump off a tall building without getting hurt. The placebo effect is the label we put on the fact that some people get better when their only treatment consists of medicine that should have no effect + the knowledge that they are being treated for something.
    2. I’d really appreciate your directing me to some of the investigations of the countless miracles that have been documented by secular medical doctors. Several people have mentioned this to me but have been unable to point me to a peer-reviewed journal – or any other journal – where these investigations are documented.
    3. I have Catholic friends and acquaintances who share your high view of man’s vocation to science, including one who is a cardinal. At the same time, they do reserve the right to pass judgement on the results of the science practiced – not on the merits of the science, but on the compatibility of the result with other beliefs.
    4. Many of my relatives are catholic. I recall one the thanksgiving dinner when one said “You scientists think you know everything!” This was followed by a long silence. After the silence, there were many reactions, all of which seemed to fall into one of three buckets: (a) Yeah. What he said!; (b) laughter; and (c) a really uneasy, thoughtful silence. I have never known a group of people more willing to reconsider their position when presented with conflicting evidence than scientists. Even among those who for a variety of reasons are labeled Catholic.
    5. Traditions provide a framework for the conduct and governance of a society. They stop being nice when they are hijacked for other purposes. The Urban renewal of 11th century was neither the first nor the last example of the dark side of the force. I have no quarrel with those who practice religion – or pursue anti-vax beliefs – so long as they don’t hurt others, including their children. But to weigh religion vs. science when discussing a question of causality is just plain silly. I love feeling good, and I love helping others. I love the sound of a choir singing Handel’s Messiah. And I can still remember most of the altar boy responses in Latin. But mingling science and religion will remain delusional until we get to the point where we understand enough about consciousness, beliefs, and thought to understand how religion works in human minds.

  37. Bertrum

    Unfortunately, the most salient point of this it is in Zimbabwe.
    100 deaths, however caused, is a drop in the ocean compared to what goes on there every day. Cults and antivax are a small sideshow to the general misery.

  38. MaDeR

    @Ian:
    “countless miracles documented by the Catholic Church and investigated by secular medical doctors.”
    What about “countless miracles from other major religions and investigated by secular medical doctors”?

    “As a Catholic I would rely upon appropriate medical treatments and invite people for pray for me”
    If praying works, this should be enough. Relying upon medical treatments AND praying is your admission that praying does not work more reliably than random chance. “Thy will” is sure great.

    Other notes:
    – prayers != miracles (but it is minior nitpicking – both are equally worthless)
    – “investigated”? I do not think it means what you think it means.

  39. Ramel

    @Andy
    “However, there must to be parental choice when raising kids. Must – full stop.”

    You mean like it should be up to the parents if the kids get food or shoes? I fail to see how depriving kids a of life saving medical intervention and letting them die is any different from depriving them of food or water and letting them die.

    @Ian
    If it’s “thy will be done” doesn’t that mean that god will do what he wants regardless of whether you pray or not?’

  40. Ad Hominid

    @ EmTee

    ” Zimbabwe != South Africa…”

    If you are trying to say that Zimbabwe and South Africa are the same country, you are factually wrong, nor is Zimbabwe part of South Africa either politically or geographically. Check the map.

  41. Geek

    @MaDeR

    If praying works, this should be enough. Relying upon medical treatments AND praying is your admission that praying does not work more reliably than random chance.

    You’re forgetting how shy gods are: the gods of all religions are always trying to hide – this is the only thing they do consistently – and they can’t do anything obvious, such as healing whenever they’re asked, because it would spoil their hard-earned air of mystique.

  42. Reera the Red

    @Ad Hominid:

    The operator “!=” means “is not equal to”. EmTee was saying that Zimbabwe and South Africa are *not* the same.

  43. Robert E

    @Ad Hominid:

    The symbol ‘ != ‘ means ‘not equal to'; therefore, EmTee was saying that Zimbabwe was not the same as South Africa.

  44. Ad Hominid

    I’m aware of the symbol. I just thought it was being used incorrectly since I did not in any way imply a belief that Zimbabwe and South Arrica are the same country.

    Where did I supposedly say they were? The story is in a South African outlet. I said so. The word “neighboring” might also be a clue that I did not consider this the same country in which I described the cult as operating.

  45. MinusOne

    Doug Watts Says: Jack Simmons, if you think DDT is a panacea, please drink a quart of it, concentrated, on behalf of my family and tell report back on how good it makes you feel.

    There was a woman in California who tried to win a Wii on a radio show by seeing how much water she could drink without going to the bathroom. She died from drinking too much water too quickly. Read again: shefatally overdosed on *water*.

    I use fertilizer on my lawn. Makes it nice and green and healthy. I wouldn’t drink a quart of that, either. Your response to Jack makes zero sense, and is a laughable strawman. So we can only use things in this world that we can safely drink a quart of?

  46. @ Jack Simmons”

    So someone did follow your advice about ingesting a large amount of DDT and suffered no harm.

    That someone was obviously not an egg-laying avian.

  47. Gary Ansorge

    38. Bob:

    ” But mingling science and religion will remain delusional until we get to the point where we understand enough about consciousness, beliefs, and thought to understand how religion works in human minds.”

    Yeah! What he said!

    One might point out the obsessive quality of religion. Sin is one of the biggest obsessions we have. We obsess over whether we’re “good” people(a cultural imperative). Religion makes that propensity so much worse by focusing our attention on something that should be barely noticeable.

    Is there a God?

    If it’s not forbidden, it appears it will be mandatory but that doesn’t mean we’ll ever KNOW about it. A real God would do its best to never be seen. Who (at the intellectual level of a god) would want the worship of a bunch of insects(comparatively speaking)?

    ,,,besides, it’s so interesting to see how the freedom to choose will affect individual development(the “God as experimenter” argument).

    People have the right to choose,,,but then they must experience the consequences of those choices and one of those should be jail time for making choices that kill people,( even if that is an inadvertent result).

    Gary 7

  48. @ Gary Ansorge:

    A real God would do its best to never be seen.

    That would be entirely up to the god, wouldn’t it? Thor seemed to have a fairly well developed need for visibility, and don’t get started on Zeus, who rather enjoyed getting visible with the young lasses (and the occasional lad).

  49. @Gary Ansorge

    A real God would do its best to never be seen.

    Or, to quote “God” from Futurama, “When you do things right, people won’t be sure you’ve done anything at all.”

  50. James B

    @37 Jack Simmons

    I’m very glad to hear about your work for DDT. I think that malaria is often overshadowed by AIDS, even though in many areas is often a larger killer.

    I recently spent some time working in Uganda, and in Kampala malaria is the number one cause of death (beating AIDS hands down, despite sex workers having an infection rate of 50%). What was tragically ironic was that the health ministry was having a big crackdown on malaria, providing mosquito nets and malaria advice for free, but at the same time the environmental ministry was preventing the health ministry from draining the wetlands that surround the city. This ensured the city remained a perfect habitat for mosquitoes, and no matter what the health ministry does, millions of Ugandas will continue to die needless deaths due to a preventable disease.

    I was furious when I came across groups that vehemently opposed DDT spraying in this situation. Putting the welfare of the immediate avian population ahead of the welfare of those in Kampala dying of malaria is sickening (while I was there, malaria was responsible for 13% of all deaths, with AIDS at 11%).

    When mosquitoes do not present a deadly risk, then the benefits from spraying a smaller, and so I can understand debate in this situation. But when its life and death on the line, there is no gray area.

    Phil, you’re beacon of reason and common sense in the vaccination debate, and if you ever need another cause that is in need of a little reason and common sense, this is one.

  51. Haven’t seen a post about this yet (so if someone else already mentioned this,
    “never mind’), but the Boston Globe is reporting that the US vaccine court has ruled that thimerisal is not the cause of autism, and dismissed the claims based on it. Click on my name for link.

  52. @ James B:

    Putting the welfare of the immediate avian population ahead of the welfare of those in Kampala dying of malaria is sickening

    The problem with that statement lies in the fact that the avian population does not exist in isolation. It’s just one link in an incredibly complicated web. Ditto with the wetlands. No wetlands, no fish and amphibians. No fish and amphibians, no small mammals that prey on them. No small mammals, no big mammals…the kind that people eat. Lose one link, you run the risk of unraveling the whole thing.

    Mosquito nets have been proven to be incredibly effective in battling malaria. And unless you dump one in the swamp, they have zero impact on the environment.

  53. Gary Ansorge

    51. kuhnigget

    Old god mythologies caste gods as enhanced humans with big egos and even bigger,,,reproductive organs. They were no more an accurate manifestation of god than would be Angelina Jolie playing the goddess Athena.(Angie, there’s a great potential role for you).

    Thor, Zues, Heracles,,,all humans with a bit of something extra, like a really big hammer(another metaphor???).

    IF there is a real, god intelligence in this universe, I would hope it had much bigger concerns than mucking around with human inadequacies.

    ,,,and I expect I will never know the answer to that for certain however, I really don’t give a damn about god, or gods. I have all I can do, dealing with the very human inadequacy of small brains and inaccurate apprehension of facts. The best thing to happen in this regard to humans of the past 100,000 years was the discovery of the scientific method.

    Use it or lose it.

    GAry 7

  54. @ Gary:

    Old god mythologies caste gods as enhanced humans with big egos and even bigger,,,reproductive organs. They were no more an accurate manifestation of god than would be Angelina Jolie playing the goddess Athena.

    My point, Gary, is that if you are going to make up a super being, based upon no evidence whatsoever for such a being’s existence, then one made-up god is just as good as any other. Regardless of whether you believe in one or not, it is impossible to say one version is “no more accurate” than any other….since there is no evidence for either.

    Personally, I’d take the Greeks’ pantheon over anything in the grumpy ol’ Middle East. At least the Greeks knew how to throw a good party.

  55. David

    The article wasn’t published in NZ as far as I can tell – it was published in South Africa. I fail to see any reference to New Zealand at all. Why did you make this link?

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