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March 07, 2006

The Hidden Dangers of Fundamentalism

A connection exists between disease outbreaks and extreme religious practice
By Jack Woodall

Religious fundamentalism is bad for your health. There are, of course, the ill effects suffered by suicide bombers and their innocent victims. Consider also the sarin gas attacks by the Aum Shinrikyo (Supreme Truth) sect, which killed 12 people in the Tokyo subway in 1995, and sickened 1,000 more. (Yes, I know the media reported 5,000 casualties, but 80% of them were the "worried well" who sought hospital emergency departments because of contact with victims, or consequent anxiety attacks).

What concerns me, however, is infectious disease. Consider these case histories:

» The last outbreak of polio in Canada and the United States, in 1978–1979, was the result of travel from the Netherlands, where an outbreak was ongoing, to Canada by members of the Reformed Netherlands Congregation, a religious group that refused vaccinations.

» In Uganda in 1998, an outbreak of cholera killed 83, and the resurgence of the disease was blamed on members of a sect in Soono Parish who hid patients from medical patrols. The sect was called Red Cross (not to be confused with the international relief organization), a group that collects dead bodies in the belief that resurrection is imminent.

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