According to the World Health Organization, the second most important thing that we can do to improve child health around the world is better vaccination (number one is clean water). So anything that blocks vaccine uptake, especially in low income countries, is a major healthcare problem.
A recent study has looked at the factors that affect vaccine uptake in Haiti, and found that the vaccination rate is an astonishing 50% lower in children whose mothers are frequent users of faith healers. This was the case even after controlling for all the other factors that might play a role – levels of education, age, and distance from health centre.
They even controlled for religion – many Haitians are practitioners of Voodoo, and that in itself reduces vaccination. But regardless of Voodoo beliefs, recourse to faith healers still slashed vaccination rates.
It has been argued that traditional healers have an important role to play in improving healthcare in developing countries. No doubt this is true, in those cases where traditional healers can be brought within the fold of evidence-based medicine. But this new study is a warning shot. Here is clear evidence of the destructive power of faith healing.
There is a real danger that faith healers cannot be reconciled to modern medical practice. The evidence from wealthy countries does not bode well. In the past 15 years, more than 200 children have died in the USA because their parents relied on faith healers (George Street Journal). Even in states where it is illegal, the practice still goes on (there are two cases currently in the courts in Oregon alone)
Many states in the USA still allow legal exemption for religious faith healers. In other words, these fake healers can get away with murder, simply because they are religious.
Adamson S Muula, Matine M Polycarpe, Jayakaran Job, Seter Siziya, Emmanuel Rudatsikira (2009). Association between maternal use of traditional healer services and child vaccination coverage in Pont-Sonde, Haiti. International Journal for Equity in Health, 8 (1) DOI: 10.1186/1475-9276-8-1