Disease Eradication: Believers’ Responsibility?

A child receives the polio immunization in Lucknow, Northern India. (Photo: Jean-Marc Giboux)

A child receives the polio immunization in Lucknow, Northern India. (Photo: Jean-Marc Giboux)

By Brian Lowther

Thank God for the many earnest believers who are working to overcome poverty, illiteracy, political corruption, spiritual darkness and other works of the devil. Down through history believers have displayed a remarkable willingness to tackle the great world problems of the day. This is especially true in the case of disease.

Following Christ’s example believers have devoted tremendous efforts and genuine compassion to treating and caring for the sick. Think of the many hospitals established by believers since the time of Constantine, or the health clinics and medical missionaries spread all over the globe today. Believers are even involved in disease prevention work, as in the case of the many groups who distribute anti-malarial bed nets, [1] or denominations that have produced educational materials addressing HIV-AIDS. [2]

But there is a relatively new reality in the fight against disease and it is the conviction of the Roberta Winter Institute that believers can play a significant role.

Roberta Winter

Roberta Winter

When Roberta Winter was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, her husband—the late, preeminent missiologist Ralph D. Winter—began a frantic pursuit for more information about her disease. In his research he discovered a fact that wowed him: in comparison to the truly enormous amount of money and human resources that are devoted to disease treatment, very few resources go toward disease eradication.

Or course, this fact is understandable. As Ralph Winter pointed out, “the load of healing the sick is such a burden there is no time or energy left over to delve into the eradication of disease pathogens.” [3] It’s a case of being so busy mopping up the floor that we can’t turn off the spigot.

Now, you may assume he was trying to raise awareness about nutrition, exercise or avoiding stress. While these preventative lifestyle principles are essential, Winter considered them defensive measures. He often used the following analogy:

It’s like walking through a sniper’s alley with a bulletproof vest on. The vest (prevention) will protect you from the sniper, but only so much. If a bullet hits you where your vest doesn’t cover, you’ve got to get the medic to remove the bullet and stitch you up (treatment/cure). But the most crucial objective is to eliminate the sniper (eradication).

“All of these are important, but the third is the most urgent and crucial.” Winter explained. “You can fumble the ball in treating the wounded and dodging bullets, but you can’t win the war without the offensive.” [4]

Winter decided that if believers could summon the necessary resources and resolve to mount an offensive counter attack against eradicable disease, not only would it be dramatically helpful in alleviating suffering, it could also “radically add power and beauty to the very concept of the God we preach, and thus become a new and vital means of glorifying God among the nations.” [5]  It could, in the words of Samuel Escobar, “validate and confirm the truth and the fullness of the gospel.” [6]

Ralph D. Winter was convinced that if the body of Christ could mount an offensive counter attack against eradicable disease it could “radically add power and beauty to the very concept of the God we preach, and thus become a new and vital means of glorifying God among the nations.”

Ralph D. Winter was convinced that if the body of Christ could mount an offensive counter attack against eradicable disease it could “radically add power and beauty to the very concept of the God we preach, and thus become a new and vital means of glorifying God among the nations.”

As an example, the eradication of smallpox in 1979 has been called “one of the greatest accomplishments undertaken and performed for the benefit of mankind anywhere or at any time.” [7] Just consider all the suffering that immediately stopped the moment smallpox entered the archives of human disease. Think of the truly enormous amounts of money and human resources that are no longer necessary to treat it. What would be said and believed about Jesus if his followers teamed-up to eradicate other diseases? How much more would God be glorified if it were clear that it was done for that very reason? To demonstrate, consider the passages where healing revealed God’s character or resulted in people glorifying him: Matthew 15:30-31, Mark 2:12, Luke 5:26; 17:11-16;18:43, John 20:30-31.

Armed with these convictions, Winter went to work at what he did best, igniting a theological shift in the body of Christ. As when he championed the cause of unreached peoples in the 1970’s and 80’s, his first objective was to find a key scripture passage that people could rally around.

It wasn’t long before he landed on I John 3:8, “For the Son of God appeared for this purpose, that he might destroy the works of the devil.” As scripture portrays it, the fundamental reason that Christ appeared and the purpose behind all of his activity—his teaching, his exorcisms, his healing and the cross—was to conquer the devil and his death-dealing works (Heb 2:14).

Given the prevalence in the New Testament of the assumption that sickness and disease are a work of the devil (Matthew 9:32, 12:22, 17:14-18, Luke 13:10-16, Acts 10:38), plus the absolute finality implied in the word eradication, this cause seems to resonate quite profoundly with Christ’s purpose of destroying the works of the devil.

Winter’s second objective was to find an example that he could point to of a theologically inspired initiative to eradicate disease. His conclusion:

There is absolutely no evidence I know of in all the world of any theologically driven interest in combating disease at its origins. I have not found any work of theology, any chapter, any paragraph, nor to my knowledge any sermon urging us—whether in the pew or in professional missions—to go to battle against the many disease pathogens we now know to be eradicable. [8]

Can it be true that there are no believers attempting to eradicate disease?

Truth be told, there are scores of individual believers who are at work in the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or other public health entities. Their contributions are to be applauded and emulated. But the question is, can the world count on any coordinated, theologically motivated endeavor to eradicate the roots of disease?

One of the great developments in Christianity over the past two centuries has been the fruitfulness of the mission agency: a concerted organization of trained people who are theologically compelled to accomplish a specific purpose. There is no equivalent to the mission agency in the world of disease eradication. Establishing such organizations could be essential to the success of eradication efforts currently underway.  Below are a few examples.

PolioErad.jpg

Government Organizations

The World Health Organization (WHO) has to its credit the eradication of smallpox and has been leading the Global Polio Eradication Initiative since 1988. As with all other eradication efforts, the polio campaign has been “fatally vulnerable to the…misapprehensions, and simple resistance of people.” [9] From 1988 to 2003 polio had been eliminated in all but Afghanistan, India, Nigeria, and Pakistan. However, religious leaders in northern Nigeria began to oppose the vaccination program, claiming that it was a plot to spread AIDS and sterility. As a result polio cases in Nigeria tripled over the next three years. [10]

How believers could help

These misunderstandings are the very kinds of obstacles that missionaries have been working to overcome for centuries. Mission workers who are already funded and in place all over the globe could bring their hard-won knowledge to help the fight against polio and other eradicable diseases. They could help recognize and understand the social aspects of an eradication effort from the perspective of those directly affected by it. They could help develop relationships with community leaders and traditional healers to gain their consent about eradication plans. They could even be trained to administer vaccines. As a result, a new level of trust among the indigenous peoples could be forged, as well as new opportunities for field workers to mention that they are followers of Jesus acting as the church, loving the world because God loved it.

The donation of Mectizan® by Merck & Co from 1987 onward has had a major impact on the worldwide fight against river blindness (onchocerciasis). (Photo: Suzanne Porter/Sightsavers)

The donation of Mectizan® by Merck & Co from 1987 onward has had a major impact on the worldwide fight against river blindness (onchocerciasis). (Photo: Suzanne Porter/Sightsavers)

Pharmaceuticals

Pharmaceuticals do a number of good things. Their products help relieve suffering and sometimes prevent premature death. They provide a large number of jobs. Plus some pharmaceuticals donate medication to eradication efforts. Since 1987 one of the largest pharmaceuticals, Merck has been donating Mectizan®—which prevents river blindness and halts the transmission of the disease—to people in sub-Saharan Africa. [11]

But note that this is a donation from Merck, not a revenue stream. Merck and other pharmaceuticals can’t expect to build their businesses or satisfy their shareholders by donating all of their products. They would very shortly go broke from such activities. Nor can they be relied upon to be extensively involved in eradication work. After all, a successful eradication effort by definition puts itself out of business.

How believers could help

Entrepreneurial believers could establish organizations to purchase and distribute medications like Mectizan with contributions from believers who have been awakened to this cause. There may be other medications or vaccines that pharmaceuticals have given up on or decided not to pursue because they are not profitable. An organized effort by believers could create a new market for them.

Universities

Universities have the right kind of structure for eradication research. But most of the research done by universities is extensively subsidized (and in effect controlled) by either outside commercial interests or by federal sources. Both of these funding streams bring with them competing concerns of commerce or politics to the already substantial mix of difficulties facing eradication efforts.

As an example, in 2004 a research deal was struck between the biology department at UC Berkeley and the biotechnology company Novartis. In return for their $25 million sponsorship, Novartis got first dibs on potentially lucrative discoveries. An enormous amount of negative publicity followed. Many feared Novartis would try to strong-arm the scientists to pursue only commercially valuable research. [12] Ultimately investigators found that Novartis had no undue influence. But suspicions about these types of sponsorships have reverberated ever since.

Jonas Salk never patented the polio vaccine and distributed it freely with no interest in personal profit.

Jonas Salk never patented the polio vaccine and distributed it freely with no interest in personal profit.

How believers could help

A group of researchers could be funded with contributions from believers who have been roused by this movement. This could help relieve the researchers of the dual burden of profitability and politics and allow them to pursue challenging questions about the roots of disease. After all, it would seem that there is nothing bio-medical researchers crave more than resources, time and freedom to make fundamental discoveries for the betterment of human health.

In turn, these researchers could follow the example of Jonas Salk. Salk discovered and developed the first safe and effective vaccine for polio, “the most frightening public health problem of post-war United States.” [13] But what is even more remarkable is that he never patented his discovery and distributed the vaccine freely with no interest in personal profit.

These suggestions are admittedly idealistic. But as Winter was fond of saying, “Risks are not to be evaluated by the probability of success but by the worthiness of the goal.” These ideas are just a start. There are potentially hundreds of additional ways theologically driven endeavors could aid in current eradication campaigns. Or perhaps believers could take the lead on a new campaign, as Jimmy Carter did with Guinea worm.

Jimmy Carter has been leading the effort to eradicate Guinea Worm since 1986.

Jimmy Carter has been leading the effort to eradicate Guinea Worm since 1986.

The Carter Center

Guinea worm is an extremely painful, spaghetti-like parasite that has plagued humanity since at least the 2nd century B.C.E. In 1986 there were almost 4 million annual cases of Guinea worm. [14] Today that number is almost down to zero. Why? Because, as Winter explained, “one Christian layman visiting in West Africa…decided to return to the U.S. and muster efforts to eradicate this pathogen, ‘to wipe it from the face of the earth.’ That was Jimmy Carter.” [15] He established the Carter Center to spearhead the Guinea worm campaign—among other things—and has now substantially completed this goal. Because of the work of the Carter Center, Guinea worm is poised to be the first parasitic disease to be eradicated and the only disease to be eradicated without the use of vaccines.

A pattern to follow

A little known fact is that Rotarians have been at the forefront of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative since it began in 1988. Rotary clubs have contributed huge amounts of money and volunteer hours to immunize children around the world against polio and to raise public awareness about the disease. In that time the number of polio cases worldwide has decreased by more than 99%. [16] In spite of this remarkable progress, tackling the last 1% of polio cases has proven to be difficult and very expensive. The greatest threat to this program’s success: a $665 million funding gap.

To help address this gap, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation donated half of the amount needed. [17] Rotary International responded by challenging its clubs to raise $200 million in three years. Amazingly, after only two years, Rotarians had raised 88% of that amount. [18]

The Rotary Foundation raised this impressive sum by challenging each of their 34,000 clubs to raise $2,000 per year, for three years. For comparison sake, there are about the same number of Methodist churches in the United States and three times as many Baptist churches. [19] The Hartford Institute for Religious Research estimates that there are roughly 322,000 religious congregations (Protestant/Catholic/Orthodox) in the United States. [20] If each of these congregations followed the Rotarian pattern, $1.9 Billion would be generated in three years.

Is the world waiting for believers to seriously take on this challenge?

“Disease eradication, because it takes the globe as its clinic, faces monster-sized…complexities. The facilities are worse, the money scarcer, the sun hotter, the cold colder, the workers harder to find and to train, and the results harder to verify.” [21] This cause requires a kind of zeal that is reminiscent of the dedication that has propelled missionaries around the globe for centuries. The trouble is that we as believers have never considered a coordinated disease eradication effort within the range of our responsibility.

The trouble is that we as believers have never considered a coordinated disease eradication effort within the range of our responsibility.

One explanation for this may be because our theological way of understanding how to deal with disease begins to stumble at the question of eradication. We feel responsible to prevent disease because we see a model in the dietary and hygienic laws of the Old Testament that protected Israel from communicable diseases. We feel responsible to heal disease because we see Christ healing the sick throughout his earthly ministry. But the Bible doesn’t say anything explicit about eradication. After all, Jesus didn’t eradicate disease, nor did he give us a clear verbal mandate to do so, as he did with the Great Commission.

William Wilberforce challenged the injustice of slavery based upon deeply held moral convictions and a biblical understanding of innate human value and freedom.

William Wilberforce challenged the injustice of slavery based upon deeply held moral convictions and a biblical understanding of innate human value and freedom.

A good parallel to the cause of disease eradication is the movement to abolish slavery in the 19th Century. In England, William Wilberforce challenged the injustice of slavery based upon deeply held moral convictions and a biblical understanding of innate human value and freedom. These same convictions propel those today who fight human trafficking. But note that these convictions are NOT based on a few isolated verses or passages. In fact, not one verse in the Bible explicitly prohibits slavery.

In other words, Jesus didn’t abolish slavery, but he modeled an understanding of human value. In this same way, Jesus didn’t eradicate disease, but he modeled a sensitivity to suffering and compassion for those who were sick. We can do likewise on a global level and for all future generations through eradication. After all, eradication can simply be thought of as healing every human being on earth of a given disease for the rest of history.

Does scripture have anything to say about eradicating disease?

One biblical concept that approaches an answer is the Hebrew term shalom. Shalom is understood around the world to mean peace. But to think of shalom as simply a state of affairs where there are no disputes or wars does not begin to describe the full meaning of the term. Shalom also denotes completeness, health, safety, quietness, rest and harmony. It implies a process, an activity, a movement to restore perfect wholeness. [22]

This fuller sense of shalom brings new meaning to Christ’s title, “Prince of Peace/Sar Shalom” (Isaiah 9:6). This is why when John the Baptist asked if Jesus was the Messiah, Jesus pointed to the shalom he was manifesting, “The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.” (Luke 7:22)

When Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers” (Matthew 5:9), he was describing the role believers were to have as sons of God, taking over the family business in bringing shalom to this broken, diseased, war-torn world.

What is the Roberta Winter Institute asking believers to do?

In the long run we’re asking believers who have—or can obtain—expertise as medical practitioners, cultural anthropologists, managers, community organizers, educators, social scientists, linguists, fund raisers, government liaisons, chemists, microbiologists, epidemiologists and those in many other fields to tackle the eradication of disease with new vigor as their Christian calling.

But, what can I do? I’m not a medical practitioner, researcher, etc. And I can’t just drop everything and become one.

In the short run, it would seem reasonable to focus on igniting a theological shift in the body of Christ about disease and the role of the body of Christ in eradicating it. This will help fulfill the ultimate goal of the Roberta Winter Institute: to launch and sustain a vibrant, powerful movement of believers who will work together for the glory of God to eradicate the diseases that affect humanity.

The hope is that God will use this movement to bring together the right mix of people—researchers, medical practitioners, donors, entrepreneurs, fund raisers, etc.—who will establish new initiatives and organizations to research and combat disease at its roots.

Conclusion

Defeating any disease will require earnest thought, careful planning, deliberate action, powerful communications, compelling purpose, and fervent prayer. It will take a wide array of strategies and a global army of skilled and committed people. But by no means are we faced with un-winnable battles. Especially given the victories over smallpox and Rinderpest (a bovine disease eradicated in 2010), and what can be learned from the two ongoing programs (Polio and Guinea Worm).

Think about the statement it would make if a group of believers were intentionally involved in eradicating the next disease. What if a coordinated group of believers took the lead on such a campaign? As Richard Stearns, President of World Vision said about believers combating massive world problems like disease in his book The Hole in Our Gospel:

[it] would be on the lips of every citizen in the world and in the pages of every newspaper—in a good way. The world would see the whole gospel—the good news of the kingdom of God—not just spoken but demonstrated, by people whose faith is not devoid of deeds but defined by love and backed up with action. His kingdom come, His will be done, on earth, as it is in heaven. This was the whole gospel that Jesus proclaimed in Luke 4, and if we would embrace it, it would literally change everything. [23]
     ~ Richard Stearns, President of World Vision

Endnotes

1    On-line. Available from http://www.christianpost.com/news/malaria-spurs-christians-to-trade-lunch-for-mosquito-net-27073/, accessed 18 August 2011.
2    Alex, Mwangi, 2005. Orthodox Church Launches An AIDS Eradication Strategy.  On-line. Available from http://ke.christiantoday.com/article/orthodox-church-launches-an-aids-eradication-strategy/4548.htm, accessed 31 May 2011.
3    Winter, Ralph D. 2005 Editorial Comment. Mission Frontiers,  July-August 2005.
4    Ibid
5    Winter, Ralph D. 2008 Frontiers in Mission: Discovering and Surmounting Barriers to the Missio Dei. Pasadena: WCIU Press,  221
6    Escobar, Samuel, 2003. The New Global Mission: The Gospel from Everywhere to Everyone (Christian Doctrine in Global Perspective) Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic
7    Oldstone, Michael B. A. 2010. Viruses, Plagues, and History: Past, Present and Future. New York, Oxford University Press, 84.
8    Winter, Ralph D. 2008 Frontiers in Mission: Discovering and Surmounting Barriers to the Missio Dei. Pasadena: WCIU Press, 7.
9    Needham, Cynthia A. and Canning, Richard, 2003 Global Disease Eradication: the Race for the Last Child. Washington DC: ASM Press, 22.
10    Brown, Lester, 2011. World on the Edge, New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 92
11    On-line. Available from http://www.un.org/ecosocdev/geninfo/afrec/vol17no1/171heal1.htm, accessed 18 August 2011.
12    On-line. Available from http://www.sacbee.com/static/live/news/projects/biotech/archive/080104.html, accessed 18 July 2011.
13    Lloyd, Robert, 2009 American Experience: The Polio Crusade. Los Angeles Times, Television Review, Feb. 2, 2009
14    Carter Center Health Programs. Guinea Worm Facts. On-line. Available from http://www.cartercenter.org/health/guinea_worm/mini_site/facts.html, accessed 31 May 2011.
15    Winter, Ralph D. 2008 Frontiers in Mission: Discovering and Surmounting Barriers to the Missio Dei. Pasadena: WCIU Press, 221.
16    On-line. Available from http://www.polioeradication.org/Aboutus/Progress.aspx, accessed 18 August 2011.
17    On-line. Available from http://www.rotary.org/en/MediaAndNews/News/Pages/110614_news_gates.aspx, accessed 18 August 2011.
18    Ibid
19    On-line. Available from http://allchurches.com/, accessed 18 August 2011.
20    On-line. Available from http://hirr.hartsem.edu/research/fastfacts/fast_facts.html#largest, accessed 18 August 2011.
21    Needham, Cynthia A. and Canning, Richard, 2003 Global Disease Eradication: the Race for the Last Child. Washington DC: ASM Press, 2.
22    On-line. Available from http://www.therefinersfire.org/meaning_of_shalom.htm, accessed 18 August 2011.
23    Stearns, Richard, 2009. The Hole in Our Gospel. Nashville, Thomas Nelson, 219

Brian Lowther is the Director of the Roberta Winter Institute

Posted on June 22, 2016 .