Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Avian Flu and the Churches' Response

Out of the blue a couple of months ago I received an email from Dr. Tim Foggin, a family practitioner in the Burnaby, B.C., area of western Canada. Dr. Foggin had read something I had written here about the possibilities of avian flu, and was getting in touch with me to tell me that he has been working with some colleagues on the implications for the churches of such an eventuality.

Then Dr. Foggin invited me to participate in a gathering being organized by Canadian evangelicals in Vancouver, but, alas, the notice was short and there is no way I could do such a thing. Not only would I have loved to have participated in such a forum, but it would have given me an opportunity to see my physician daughter who, with her husband, lives only a few hours away in Washington state.

Dr. Foggin has since launched church_emergency_preparedness@yahoo.com as a group discussion setting. I would commend you to be in touch with him at that address to see if you can be added to the conversation. He is, as far as I know, one of the few Christians who is taking seriously the potential challenge that avian flu could be to the churches and society if it mutates so that it becomes transferable human-to-human.

This does not seem to have happened yet, and the World Health Organization is working extremely hard to monitor and control its spread, as you are probably aware. The last few days of news on BBC World have given significant coverage to the spread of avian flu in Turkey, especially among those who live cheek-by-jowl with their poultry in the eastern part of the country.

While it is foolish to panic at this stage, it is important to be prepared for all eventualities. It does seem that while many nations in the world are taking seriously the possibility that bird flu could match the great flu epidemic of 1918-1920 when in excess of 20 million in a much smaller world population died, the messages coming from the United States are mixed -- at the very best. Indeed, it seems to me that both federal and state leaderships have not taken the notion of a pandemic with the seriousness that they should.

With the dithering of government, this means that the churches have a vital role to play should this become a virulent flu that profoundly effects families, congregations, businesses, and so forth. It also means that it is important for pastors and Christian leaders to keep their eyes open on this front for to be forewarned is to be forearmed.

Now, there are extremists of the survivalist ilk who are stockpiling drugs, water, food, and so forth, with the hope of barracading themselves in their homes and not getting infected. Such foolishiness is not something Christians should emulate. The history of the church is replete with instances of Christians sacrificing their all, even their lives, during times of plague of one kind or another in order that people may be cared for in Jesus' name -- and not just the Black Death or ancient history.

In the 1870s there was a Yellow Fever epidemic in Memphis, Tennessee. People fled the city, but the Anglican sisters of the Community of St. Mary stayed behind and, with others, cared for the dying, themselves taking a terrible hit from the virulence of the disease. While we don't know what an avian flu pandemic might look like, or how lethal it might be, if it matches or is worse than the pandemic following World War One, it could be that this is the kind of response that would be expected of faithful Christians.

Or, are we as Christians, so earthbound that we cannot allow ourselves to think that such self-sacrifice is what God calls us to?


M Reddell said...


Thanks for the comments. As a government official working on pandemic planning, it is good to see church leaders also thinking about the issue. Some wise words from Martin Luther on a Christian's response to pandemic-type events are at the link.

Standing_Firm said...