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Home / Health & Science

Vaccinating with the word of God



Doctors have witnessed firsthand, how religion interferes with health outcomes, faith often being mixed with faith healing. [Courtesy]

When Covid came calling in March last year, the Catholic Doctors Association urged fellow faithful to skirt the jab arguing it was not safe. But Catholic bishops later disowned the call and sadly, the chair of the association, Dr Stephen Karanja who was also against polio, cervical cancer and tetanus vaccines.

Dr Karanja, who has since succumbed to Covid-19, argued that some medical products were laced with chemicals that could alter the human DNA.

The back and forth between Catholic doctors and bishops during a pandemic placed people and their religious beliefs at the centre of health-seeking behaviour which changed for most when Pope Francis, head of the Catholic Church, got jabbed against Covid-19.  

Catholics for ages, have been urged against using contraceptives as sex should only be between a man and wife. Using them, Catholics are told, is against ‘natural law’ as it gives human beings power to decide when a new life should begin, yet that power belongs to God. The use of contraceptives also leads to widespread immorality by turning sex into a ‘non-marital act.’

But Pope Francis in The Joy of Love writes that individual conscience be the guiding principle for Catholics negotiating the complexities of sex, marriage and family life.

And doctors have witnessed firsthand, how religion interferes with health outcomes, faith often being mixed with faith healing.

Dr Goody Gor recalls one case of a severely anaemic seven-month-old ‘paper weight’ boy during her internship. He was bleeding in his gut and “needed transfusion and surgery. We requested his parents for consent to perform the procedure but they refused.

The parents were Jehovah Witnesses, a faith that frowns at blood transfusions quoting Deuteronomy 12:23: ‘Just be firmly resolved not to eat the blood, because the blood is the life, and you must not eat the life with the flesh.’

 “They told us it was God’s will for them to have their son and his fate was up to Him,” says Dr Gor. “We were helpless and he succumbed. It really shocked me because it was my first time to watch such a young child deteriorate and I could not intervene to help.”

Then there was the case of the senior pastor who was diagnosed with oesophageal cancer. He refused treatment, accusing the doctors of being agents of the devil sent to test him. Trying to explain the need to start treatment saw the pastor “call in some of his congregation who threatened to beat us. So, we left him alone. In six months he was dead.”

Dr Gor also cites one woman with breast cancer and needed mastectomy and chemotherapy but the husband refused.

“Apparently their beliefs were that one breast belongs to the husband and in this case, the breast with cancer was his,” offers Dr Gor. “He could not allow for it to be cut off, so we discharged her and she died after the cancer spread throughout her body.”

Dr Robert Ngunjiri has worked in the public sector and recalls how during his stint in Ndaragwa, Nyandarua County parents would hide their children to avoid polio vaccination during door to door campaigns.


Some parents in Nyandarua County would hide their children to avoid polio vaccination. [Courtesy]

Dr Ngunjiri later learnt that some were members of The Remnants, a sect around Mairo Inya area who strictly avoid hospitals.

“We used to walk around with government officers to enforce immunisations because the children have rights to health services and sadly adherents of The Remnants “would die of treatable illnesses and I could not understand why they would insist on suffering without seeking remedies.”

Dr Ngunjiri also worked in North Eastern Kenya where some communities do not believe in Caesarean Sections. He recalls one emergency C- section but the pregnant woman’s family refused. “They threatened my life as they forcefully discharged the patient and said they would put her in a car and drive through the bumpiest roads until the woman gave birth.”

Fearing for his life, he watched helplessly as she was wheeled out of the hospital to avoid the surgery.

Dr Nick Okoth, a Kenyan working in South Sudan says in his rural Alego/Usonga, where traditional churches thrive, “local chiefs were asked to arrest, cane and take to hospitals by force those who refuse conventional treatments due to their religious beliefs” which worked for fear of being arrested and arraigned - which would have been a curious case to deal with considering freedom of worship is enshrined in the constitution.

 Dr Jude Onunga, the executive director of Buruburu Medical Clinic and a Catholic, says denominations that advise against conventional treatment “are mostly found in informal settlements and deep in rural areas” but that generally, religious beliefs are “difficult to understand as there are those who believe that only God can heal a sick person.”

Dr Onunga recalls the case of a mother whose religious beliefs did not allow her to seek medical treatment, but her “children approached me when she became unconscious and thought we could take advantage to rush her for treatment, but she died before reaching the Metropolitan Hospital in Buruburu.”

Religious gear like turbans have also been an issue to the Akorino who find it sartorially challenging when burdened with a helmet during a boda boda ride. Motorbikes have become some of the biggest contributors to human traffic at the casualty departments due to increased road accidents.

But one Akorino official recently wrote the Interior Cabinet Secretary Dr Fred Matiang’i seeking exemption of the sect’s faithful as “wearing something on top of turbans interferes with our faith.”

And beliefs can have absurdities as was the case of one woman who postponed surgery at a top private hospital in Nairobi on learning the surgeon scheduled to operate on her was not a front-pew Presbyterian.

She ended up having the surgery at an estate hospital a week later, but the family ensured the doctor was not only of similar faith, but also one with whom they could discuss test results in mother-tongue.  

The family paid Sh80,000 less, but such is the power of religion even in the choice of, not just medics, but also diet, medicines based on animal products and preferred gender of medics.


Cultural, social and religious contexts in most communities are key influencers of health-seeking behaviour. [Courtesy]

Dan Obala a former employee of Nairobi City Council health department and an elder at St Meshack Fellowship in Bahati Nairobi argues that “in the history of man, religious leaders and health providers were often the same. Only in recent times has medicine taken on a scientific approach that has resulted in a separation between medicine and religion.”

According to Obala, medics ought to understand patients often turn to their spiritual beliefs when making medical decisions as faith sometimes, reduces anxieties during delicate surgeries and when wrestling terminal illnesses.

 But why do some religions shun modern medicine and medications in general?  John Okumba of Legio Maria in Kariadudu, Nairobi explains that “members of Legio Maria believe that since all sicknesses that inflict people come as a result of punishment from God, it is the same God who must be asked through prayers to deliver the sick.”

The same beliefs are found among the Akorino sect that dispenses with modern medicine.

Moses Kibe, a member of the Akorino, KCC branch in Umoja explains that they believe sicknesses is punishment from God due to sinning, so it is only God alone who can heal the sick after repenting. So, what would such a member do when in need of medical oxygen to survive Covid-19?

Traditional churches once also wreaked havoc in Western Kenya during the early days of HIV — which church leaders insisted was ‘chira’ (witchcraft) from disobeying certain cultural rites and that deliverance via spiritual healing of the victims was the cure, not treatment. The result was HIV devastated whole families, a situation worsened when mixed with culture of wife inheritance at the time.

John Jagongo Obara, a commentator on social issues says “some religions have strict prayer times that may interfere with medical treatment including some traditional churches like Legio Maria, Roho Msalaba, The Power Of Jesus Around The World and Dini Ya Blanket.

Other traditional churches divine interventions can help heal snake bites, dog bites or rabies and Obara says cultural, social and religious contexts in most communities are key influencers of health-seeking behaviour besides some being barriers to health access including “women who deliver at home because it is against their religion to give birth under professional midwives attendants.”

Kenyatta refused heart pacer, Bob Marley toe amputation

Founding President Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, an agnostic, suffered a weak heart but refused a heart pacer even when Dr Christiaan Bernard, the world-famous heart surgeon was brought from South Africa in 1976. Never mind Kenya had no diplomatic ties with the then Apartheid regime. What Dr Bernard diagnosed left him sobbing while addressing the Rotary Club of Nairobi at the Nairobi Club.

Jomo suffered gout, but often ignored Dr Eric Mngolla’s advise against red meat arguing ‘no lion gets sick from eating meat.’ He died of natural causes on August 22, 1978, but had collapsed several times the night before.


Jomo Kenyatta died of natural causes on August 22, 1978. [File, Standard]

King of reggae and Jamaican legend, Bob Marley was diagnosed with malignant melanoma, a form of skin cancer four years before he succumbed to it on May 11, 1981. But eight months earlier, he preferred some controversial diet treatment in Germany instead of surgery which could have removed the cancerous cells on his toe. Only amputation could have saved him but he shook his dreads against it on grounds it was against his Rastafarian faith to which the ‘body was a temple.’ By the time he consented to skin grafting, it was too late. He died at 36.

Then there was the case of American pop icon Prince who died in 2016. He was a Jehovah Witness which shuns blood transfusions, yet his double hip replacement surgery required it. He was 57.

 Mission hospitals more affordable  

Dr Perminus Omollo of Crown Dental and Optical Services says the negative view of vaccines as propagated by some religions have no scientific proof and evidence, yet some mainstream churches like the Catholic Church are huge investors in healthcare where their faithful form the bulk of the patients.

The Anglican Church also operates health facilities and a senior member of Kenya Anglican Men Association (KAMA) St James Buruburu branch, but who requested anonymity says “a church that runs a hospital prefer doctors from the same faith and encourage its members to seek treatment there because the medics understand the doctrines of that church besides generating money to ensure a strong financial base.”

SDA church elder Tom Ajode says most Kenyans prefer mission hospitals because they are more affordable compared to private and even public hospitals.

James Kimani of Throne Of Grace church says while they don’t get involved on whether members get vaccinations, they also don’t discourage them from seeking medical treatment as “only cults would advise members not to visit hospitals or see a doctor when sick” but they perform ‘special deliverance’ to those whose sicknesses cannot be located by doctors after tests. 

While Covid had interfered with church attendance, today, the Anglican Church in Buruburu has been carrying out mass vaccination of its members inside church premises.

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