An ounce of prevention

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If you’ve never been to Howick, I’d recommend a visit. It’s a lovely village, situated on the eastern side of Auckland. In the middle of Howick’s high street is a picturesque pub, and at the end stands a quaint church surrounded by an old graveyard. Walking down the street, it feels very much like you’ve wandered into a village in Surrey or Berkshire in south-east England. If that’s not enough to tempt a visit, views of beautiful Cockle Bay entice from the higher points of the village. 

When I was in Howick, that old graveyard beckoned me in. I’m not morbid, but there’s something oddly appealing about reading gravestones from a bygone age. I suppose the inscriptions provide perspective. And they’re often deeply affecting. Maybe all that perspective and pathos is the reason I was the solitary figure wandering in the cemetery that day, while across the road people bustled by on their errands.

. . . let’s ensure we never confuse the wonderful Adventist health message with the wanton rejection of proven medical advances.

But it was what I read on a special memorial that stopped me in my tracks. It turns out that in 1854, Howick had an epidemic. Three of the vicar’s children died within nine days of each other—a little boy and two little girls. His family was not alone in tragedy. Fifty children in all died and were buried in little graves in this peaceful Anglican churchyard and the nearby Catholic cemetery. The grief that must have swept this idyllic community sitting on the far edge of the Empire is almost impossible to imagine.

How fortunate we are to live in an era where it has been so long since communicable diseases have decimated our young, that we have almost forgotten about them. So much so, I suppose, that some of us have become enamoured with various movements in opposition to common sense, proven measures necessary to ensure we do not return to an era where cemeteries are full of lifeless little bodies. 

The fascination with novel health theories is not entirely surprising. Adventists have a long history of health extremism. So long, that right from our beginning, Ellen White dedicated substantial time warning us against getting carried off on fanatical tangents. For example, in 1868 she castigated “extremists [who] would run health reform into the ground”. 

Being around physicians for much of my life, I grew up hearing my father warn against a whole host of bizarre “health” fads in the Church. There were those who were travelling offshore for injections of the essence of apricot kernel to treat their cancer, with predictable results; others who refused modern medicine in total. And then there was the remarkable array of exotic diets. There was the church member who couldn’t hold down a job because he restricted his diet to dried fruit which, to put it politely, had a rather drastic impact on his digestive system. And the woman who was feeding her children raw soybeans. Suffice to say, you wouldn’t want to be stuck next to those kids on a long flight! 

Despite our community’s bitter experience, however, we remain particularly susceptible to health extremism. And no extreme is more dangerous today than the movement against basic childhood vaccinations.

“It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he was never reasoned into,” observed Jonathan Swift, and in my experience his observation remains as true today as when he made it in the 1700s. So I won’t try. After all, if you’re willing to believe the whole medical world is part of a grand conspiracy that has stretched from Louis Pasteur to your local Adventist doctor, what am I going to say to convince you otherwise? 

What I do intend, however, is to firstly encourage those on the fence to listen to health professionals (see the excellent article by Dr Andrew Pennington here), not internet speculation—no matter how firmly stated or how well the speculation might be presented. And, secondly, let’s ensure we never confuse the wonderful Adventist health message with the wanton rejection of proven medical advances.

I’m glad we chose to vaccinate our precious children. It was the right thing to do for them, and for other children they come in contact with. And I am deeply grateful that I live in an era of low infant mortality due, in large part, to the wonderful blessing of childhood vaccination. If per chance you’re tempted to turn your back on modern medicine, maybe a walk through an old graveyard will help provide perspective. 

James Standish is editor of RECORD.