01/21/2013 08:02 am ET Updated Mar 23, 2013

MLK, Jr And Why Child Vaccination Is a Moral Issue

"There is an amazing democracy about death", observed Martin Luther King, Jr, in his eulogy for three little girls who died in the Birmingham Alabama, September 1963 church bombing. His words resonate powerfully today: an agony of mourning for children whose lives were cut short brutally and a compelling call to action against violence. His appeal goes beyond the vicious violence of bombs and guns, as King speaks to the cruelty of systems that are profoundly unequal.

Needless child deaths from diseases we can prevent are a prime example of undemocratic deaths. Two million children each year die from diseases that can be prevented by vaccinations. The very idea of a single child's death is agonizing; multiply that by two million. Over 100 million children are immunized every year before their first birthday in a procedure that is simply taken for granted in prosperous communities all over the world. But poor countries can't afford the cost, and universal vaccination depends on solid institutions and real commitment.

That's where faith communities come in. Vaccination campaigns have long inspired collaboration between religious and non-religious institutions and communities. When wars wracked Central America, Catholic Church officials helped to broker ceasefires so that children could be immunized. Muslim leaders led the way in life-saving campaigns in Indonesia. Religious actors from many traditions persuade anxious parents to vaccinate their children, often by example. They can demand that protecting children gets the highest priority.

And where religious leaders are skeptical about the motivations of public health workers or suspicious of vaccines, campaigns founder. Religious tensions in Nigeria and Pakistan, for example, have put the global campaign to eradicate polio in serious jeopardy.

There's a powerful global campaign to bring the modern miracle of vaccination to all children, everywhere. The GAVI Alliance brings together many partners, public and private, national and international. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has made immunization a flagship operation, calling in 2010 for a "Decade of Vaccines", and making a 10-year, $10 billion commitment to research, develop, and deliver vaccines for the world's poorest countries.

The campaign is pursuing its goals relentlessly. The past decade has been one of the most productive in the history of vaccine development and access. Five new vaccines have been developed. The pneumococcal and rotavirus vaccines prevent two major child killers, pneumonia and diarrhea. But finance is an important constraint. Immunization programs in the world's 72 poorest countries will on average cost about $4.0 billion in 2015 and there's a gap of 30-40%. Many poor countries can provide only a tiny fraction of the costs: total government spending on health in poor countries averages about $25 per capita, while fully immunizing a child with the four basic vaccines costs around $20.

Religious communities can and should be a vital part of the global effort. Today theology is rarely, if ever, the sole driver of anti-vaccination voices tied to religion. A strong positive link running from faith to immunization is the shared value major faiths place on life, health, well-being, equity, and the prevention of suffering, particularly for children and other innocents. Many faith leaders call vaccination a moral imperative. Religious objections to vaccines can be powerful, but most (though not all), of such cases points to motivations that are not wholly or even mostly religious, but rather concern other cultural, social, or political factors. The mainstream religious or ethical stance is pro-immunization and no major faith has expressed a blanket theological objection to immunization in modern times. Immunization exemptions in richer countries are tied as much to health and political concerns as to theology. In the US, a few thousand compared to 3.7 million children who entered kindergarten in 2005 took advantage of religious exemptions.

So far, the global vaccine campaign has not reached out actively to the enormous religious communities whose mission is to care for the vulnerable. That's beginning to change, however, and there's a move afoot to engage faith partners far more actively with GAVI and other partners. The potential to strengthen partnerships with faith communities around vaccination is enormous. Faith communities can direct their health work to underserved populations--reaching "the fifth child." Many of the least vaccinated populations are in complex, tumultuous countries like the Democratic Republic of the Congo where faith networks are especially vital players. Faith communities can help "connect the dots" among different public health and welfare efforts so that they truly meet the needs of those people and communities most in need.

So there are opportunities for action in every community and congregation, from advocacy through to finance.

Martin Luther King would surely echo the words of Graça Machel: "we need a sense of urgency as if it were your child." That urgency applies to gun control and hatred and violence. But it also applies to the silent violence of poverty and indifference. Pressing urgently to protect each child with the vaccinations they need is a great way to honor his call to action.