Each semester in my Microbiology class I have my students give a presentation on a disease and a country where it is endemic. They discuss the disease, its transmission and manifestation, and how you treat and prevent it. In addition, they talk about the culture of the country and how, if possible, it interacts with disease acquisition and/or prognosis. They then wrap up by mentioning the non-profits that are focused on eradicating the disease or providing support and education to their specific country of interest.

For several diseases, there is no apparent connection between the disease and the culture, but for many there is. The connection is often due to lack of education, but it can also be something like the people bathing or purifying themselves in water their tradition or religion tells them is holy, when in reality it’s swimming with infectious microorganisms. We talk about how simply going in with treatments and vaccines doesn’t always work because there is a need for education in basic microbiology and cause and effect in disease transmission.

In some, if not many cases, the education is not “accepted” because of a distrust of anything related to the U.S. And often this distrust is because of differing religious beliefs. The science is not believed because of the religion (or perception of it) of the people teaching it. This makes for an interesting science vs religion discussion, even though it’s an indirect conflict. But the religion vs. religion serves to trump the science, because of the way the teachers are perceived. Interesting to consider.

I’ll finish this post with a quote shared by one of the groups yesterday, during their presentation on whooping cough in Niger.

Abdul Hakeem, who is in charge of Islamic Culture and Awareness claims

“there are concerns in the Muslim community that [immunizations are] being used for an alleged plot by the United States to reduce the population of developing countries. We live in a society where anything goes. We read about how HIV/AIDS was transmitted through vaccination. Muslims are concerned about the actions of the United States on Muslim countries across the world. Muslims fear what the United States can do with such vaccines.”