09/14/2011 08:25 pm ET Updated Nov 14, 2011

The Christian Tradition of Healthcare

Flavia Chewe is a medical caregiver in Zamtan, Zambia. She is on the frontlines of the fight against malaria, a battle that we're slowly winning. After World Vision distributes mosquito nets to a village, Flavia visits each house to instruct families in how to use them.

"Once the people come to collect the nets," Flavia says, "we demonstrate to them how to put them up in their homes the correct way, then we also follow them to their homes."

This is how we achieve progress against poverty -- house by house, lesson after lesson, child by child. According to the recently-released Millennium Development Goals report, interventions like these have caused deaths from malaria to decline by 20 percent worldwide since 2000. That's roughly 200,000 lives saved each year. Flavia estimates that in her community, malaria deaths have fallen by as much as 80 percent. Many Christians aren't aware of the Millennium Development Goals. They were developed not by churches, after all, but the United Nations. Still they lift up useful global goals to which we should all be aspiring -- Christian or not.

When a community can make progress like this against the afflictions of disease, economic progress can easily follow in its wake. Research has found that malaria causes a slowdown in economic development. Many countries in sub-Saharan Africa experience a 0.5 percent decrease in income growth annually because of malaria. In countries where malaria is particularly prevalent, the decrease in income growth is as much as 1.3 percent annually. Removing this drag on economic growth can quickly boost the economic fortunes of a community.

Our physical and economic well-being are closely tied. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that in areas in the U.S. where home foreclosures are high, there is an increase in illness. It found "an increase of 100 foreclosures corresponded to a 7.2% rise in emergency room visits and hospitalizations for hypertension, and an 8.1% increase for diabetes."

Globally, however, better health is leading to decreased poverty. The Millennium Development Goals Report for 2011 lists a number of areas where progress in health care has been dramatic. Surely this is a major reason why the international community's goal of halving poverty by 2015 remains on track despite economic turmoil in many developed countries. The report lists a number of gains in health:

  • In the last 20 years, 1.8 billion people have gained access to improved drinking water, limiting the risk of water-borne illnesses.
  • Four million more children survive to become adults every year thanks to increased immunization, which has led to a 78 percent drop in measles deaths.
  • The rate of new infections of HIV peaked in 1997 and has steadily declined since. Deaths from AIDS peaked in 2005. In addition, progress has been "remarkable" in providing care for children orphaned by HIV/AIDS.

As a result, we are on track to surpass one of the main objectives of the Millennium Development Goals to halve poverty. According to the report, we could reduce the global poverty rate from 46 percent in 1990 to 15 percent in 2015.

For Christians, like myself, the ministry of providing care to the physically sick as well as the spiritually needy harkens back to Jesus' own ministry on the earth and the earliest ministry of the first Christians.

Jesus claimed to be the Great Physician, caring for souls but also healing the sick and giving sight to the blind. Early Christians continued the practice. Historian Gary Ferngren writes that in 251 A.D., when Christians were still a small minority, the church in Rome took care of 1,500 widows, orphans, the sick and the dying. A century later, the church in Antioch supported twice as many. Out of this support network, Ferngren continues, Christians created the world's first hospitals.

In the following centuries, Christians continued to care for bodies as they sought to save souls. The 20th century saint, Mother Teresa, continued to care for the dying in her Kolkata hospice until the end of her life. In our work at World Vision, we have found that working through churches can be the most effective way to educate and provide medical interventions such as immunizations.

Today, it is people like Flavia who are carrying on the tradition, providing physical care for mothers and children, the sick and the dying. She is nurturing souls as she visits each house with instructions on using a mosquito net. This is the work of a Christian, and I praise God that it helps the world meet the aims of the Millennium Development Goals.