What causes coronavirus and other deadly outbreaks? Can we prevent them? Does the Bible hold important keys for overcoming the global challenge of infectious disease? Can religion play a role in promoting health and preventing illness? You’ll find the answers in this excerpt from Chapter 4 of our newest booklet, Biblical Principles of Health.
Perceptive world leaders in government and medicine are beginning to realize that more money, medicines, research, and legislation will not win the battle against disease. Health systems in many nations are deteriorating under the strain of burgeoning populations and limited financial resources. New outbreaks, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, severely test health care systems as nations struggle to respond. Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland, a former Director-General of the World Health Organization, acknowledged years ago that the goal of “health for all… remains elusive”—an illusion that keeps slipping over the horizon.
Perhaps it is time to ask: Why, in the twenty-first century, are we still struggling to win the battle against disease? Have effective solutions been ignored? Are we overlooking powerful tools—provided by God—that could make tremendous inroads against the plague of infectious diseases that afflict and kill millions of people around the world?
In the early 1900s, infectious diseases were the leading cause of suffering and death in America and Europe. Improved sanitation, along with other medical developments, significantly reduced these plagues on those continents.
Outside the developed world, however, we still see a staggering and sobering picture, as infectious diseases abetted by poverty ravage astonishing numbers of people. Preventable and curable illnesses like malaria, diarrhea, tuberculosis, and respiratory disease kill more than ten million people in less-developed nations every year—with children disproportionately affected. The number of people who live with and suffer from these diseases is mind-boggling.
More than 200 million people contract malaria each year, resulting in more than 400,000 fatalities—including the deaths of 300,000 children under the age of five—mostly in sub-Saharan Africa. It is estimated that 3.2 billion people—about 40 percent of the world’s population—are at risk of contracting and dying of malaria. In developing countries, diarrheal disease—which is as preventable and treatable as malaria—is another leading cause of death and disability in children. Tuberculosis (TB) is “one of the top 10 causes of death worldwide,” with more than 10 million people contracting the disease and nearly 2 million fatalities each year. Tuberculosis is a leading cause of death among those whose immune systems are compromised by human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), and “about one-third of the world’s population has latent TB”—meaning they are infected with the bacteria, but not ill.
In tropical and subtropical parts of the world, some 2.5 billion people are at risk from mosquito-borne dengue fever. More than 50 million cases and 25,000 dengue-related fatalities occur each year—and these outbreaks are spreading beyond the tropics. HIV/AIDS is rapidly becoming the greatest threat to health, economic development, and national stability in many African and Asian countries. Since its emergence, it has claimed more than 35 million lives. Today, nearly 37 million people are HIV-positive and about two million new cases are reported each year. In developing countries, snail fever (schistosomiasis) affects some 207 million people and claims more than 200,000 lives each year, while intestinal worm infections plague nearly 2 billion people (Peter J. Hotez, Forgotten People, Forgotten Diseases, p. 5). More than 190 million in poor rural areas are at risk for bacterial trachoma, the leading cause of visual impairment and blindness that affects 2 million people. More than 120 million people are at risk for onchocerciasis (river blindness) and 18 million are infected annually. Leprosy still disables between one and two million people, with about 200,000 new infections every year.
These are truly astronomical numbers of human beings who suffer from the curse of infectious disease. To make matters worse, in recent years this heavy disease burden in developing countries has been compounded by another sobering development. As the citizens of these nations increasingly adopt the behaviors and dietary practices of more developed nations, they are seeing increases in heart disease, cancer, and other pathologies that are prevalent in much of the developed world.
Tragically, the heaviest burden of infectious and chronic disease falls on “the bottom billion” who “essentially live on no money,” trapped in an endless cycle of poverty. Many countries in these poorest and least-developed regions are burdened with crushing debt, crumbling infrastructures, and rampant corruption, and are simply unable to deal with such horrendous problems—so their people continue to suffer disproportionately under the global curse of disease. A British colonial physician once wrote that “the great mass of Africa… has carried a more grievous burden of disease than any other region of the world… the present inhabitants of tropical Africa host a wider variety of human parasites than any other people” (Oliver Ransford, Bid the Sickness Cease: Disease in the History of Black Africa, pp. 7, 13.). In some regions of tropical Africa, 60–90 percent of the population is infected with multiple parasites.
To reduce and eliminate this agonizing burden of disease, we must understand and address the true causes of the problem.
For many health professionals, the only solution to the problem of infectious disease is to pour more money into developing medications and establishing clinics to deliver treatments. This is an attempt to alleviate suffering by treating symptoms but does not address underlying causes. Most infectious diseases that afflict developing countries are associated with poverty—crowded, unsanitary living conditions, lack of clean water, failure to properly dispose of human waste and garbage, and lack of protection against disease-bearing insects (window screens, mosquito nets, repellants, and insecticides). People living in poverty simply do not have access to these health-promoting resources and tools—and cash-strapped governments cannot provide them. Often corrupt leaders only add to the problem, skimming international aid money to enrich themselves.
Ignorance also plays a crucial role. People living in poor rural areas around the globe often do not understand how infectious diseases are transmitted and how easily they can be prevented. Instead of recognizing the true causes of infectious disease (e.g. bacteria, viruses, protozoa, flies, and mosquitoes), sometimes “evil spirits” are blamed. Countless millions do not realize or want to acknowledge that sexual activity and injecting street drugs can transmit HIV/AIDS. Many swim, bathe, wash clothes, and drink water from streams, lakes, and waterholes contaminated by human and animal waste—which may be the only water available! Unknowing consumption of animals and other organisms that transmit disease is also a factor in the spread of serious illnesses. Traveling to and from disease-ridden areas and coming into close contact with sick people and their personal items also facilitate the spread of infectious diseases.
Motivation is a vital factor in promoting health and preventing disease. Many know that hands should be washed carefully after urinating or defecating and before preparing or eating food, but they do not act on that knowledge. Changing individual behavior is a major challenge in the battle against disease. These fundamental issues must be addressed before the burden of sickness will be lifted and the battle against disease will be won.
But how can you eliminate disease and the consequences of poverty without money? How do you overcome ignorance? How do you motivate people to think and act differently? These are generally not areas of expertise for medical doctors, health planners, government ministers, or economists—yet finding answers in these areas is essential to lifting the burden of disease.
Accomplishing these tasks without simply throwing money at the problems will require us to rethink our approach. Education obviously must play a major role in banishing ignorance, but how can large numbers of people be helped without building more schools, hiring more teachers, or putting more people on government payrolls? What a person believes is another major factor in motivating behavioral change. We might ask: Is there anyone already in place who is capable of doing this kind of job?
Believe it or not, religious leaders occupy an ideal position for eliminating ignorance and promoting behaviors that can defeat disease. In many countries, religious leaders have weekly contact with large numbers of people—and usually all age groups. They promote values that influence personal behavior. Many are already paid by a private organization, and many have selflessly provided of their own effort and resources to supply aid, such as mosquito nets and funding for water wells.
The major problem is that most religious leaders do not fully recognize the powerful potential of their position and have not been fully prepared to function in this vital role of preventing disease and promoting health. Most clergy, like many in government and medicine, think the primary role of religion is to comfort the sick and console the bereaved. While these are helpful, they overlook another God-intended role for religious leaders—one clearly outlined in the Bible.
In an earlier chapter, we reviewed the positive impact on human health we would see if everyone obeyed God’s commands concerning clean and unclean animals. Choosing not to eat animals that were not designed for human consumption would, all by itself, go a long way toward reducing the damage done by infectious diseases! But the Bible’s guidance does not stop there.
Biblical admonitions also tell us to avoid contact with animals that have died or with whatever has touched them (see Leviticus 11:32–40). Porous earthen vessels that had potentially become contaminated were to be destroyed to avoid spreading disease. These biblical regulations are consistent with sound microbiological techniques and are important procedures in fighting infectious disease. It was the priests’ job to teach and explain these principles. Priests were to designate as unclean those who had contagious diseases characterized by skin rashes—such as leprosy, measles, smallpox, and scarlet fever. Such individuals were isolated from others to prevent the spread of disease (see Leviticus 13). These biblical guidelines are the basis of medically sound quarantine procedures that have been used for centuries. There is a good reason why “social distancing” and quarantine were early, powerful tools in addressing the coronavirus pandemic of 2020—because the biblical health principle of separating oneself from disease is effective.
The Bible’s guidelines include avoiding contact with the personal items of sick people, which can transmit germs (Leviticus 13:47–59). Contaminated items were washed or burned (which destroys microorganisms). Biblical health instructions even applied to dwellings: A house with mold or fungal growth was quarantined until the affected materials were scraped off, replaced, and covered in new plaster—and if a house could not be cleaned, it would be demolished (Leviticus 14:33–48).
This instruction would go a long way to improving the lives of 25 million people in Latin America who are at risk for Chagas disease, which infects 8 million and kills 10,000 people a year. The disease is caused by the bite of a kissing bug that lives in cracks and crevices of impoverished dwellings. One duty of the Levitical priest was to promote health and prevent disease by functioning as both a building inspector and a public health educator.
The Bible acknowledges that body fluids can transmit disease (Leviticus 15). Contact with human waste materials, nasal discharges, tears, saliva, or soiled towels can spread infectious disease. Trachoma—the result of a bacterial infection and the leading cause of preventable blindness—is spread by contact with soiled hand towels and eye-seeking flies that lay their eggs on human and animal waste (S.I. McMillen, None of These Diseases, pp. 20–21.). People coming into contact with fluids from a sick person were to wash their hands and clothes in water, bathe, and remain isolated from other people until evening as a precaution against spreading disease (Leviticus 15:11). These were not mere ceremonial laws. The purpose of these sanitary laws was to promote health and prevent disease.
One of the most practical and powerful biblical admonitions states that human waste should be buried away from habitations (Deuteronomy 23:12–14). This prevents waste materials from coming in contact with people, flies, and other organisms that transmit disease, and it preserves the purity of water supplies. Wearing shoes and not using human waste as fertilizer are also important preventive measures. Many diseases, such as diarrhea, dysentery, hookworm, roundworm, cholera, hepatitis, trachoma, and typhoid, result from contact with human waste.
Sanitary disposal of human waste and access to clean water are two of the most important ways to prevent disease. Some have claimed that if these two goals could be achieved, nearly 75 percent of Africa’s diseases would disappear! God told Israel’s religious leaders to promote these instructions that would protect the health of the populace. Sadly, modern religious leaders have failed to grasp the importance of their opportunity to provide biblical instruction that would promote behaviors that defeat disease.
Anciently, God instructed Abraham and his descendants, the Israelites, to circumcise their male infants on the eighth day after birth (Genesis 17:12–14; Leviticus 12:3). Interestingly, this instruction harmonizes with scientific studies showing that a baby’s blood-clotting mechanism may not be fully developed until the eighth day, making it unwise to do a surgical procedure earlier because of the threat of hemorrhage (McMillen). While some well-meaning people consider male circumcision barbaric, medical science shows that the benefits outweigh the risks. Circumcised boys have a reduced risk of urinary infections, circumcised men have lower rates of prostate cancer and cancer of the penis, and women married to circumcised men have lower rates of cervical cancer. Studies have concluded that circumcised males are less likely to contract or spread HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases because removing the foreskin eliminates an environment where the virus may reside. While Acts 15 makes it clear that circumcision is no longer a spiritual requirement, medical evidence certainly supports the idea that circumcision, as described in the Bible, can prevent disease and promote health.
The custom of female “circumcision” is a totally different matter. This terrible practice is not biblical and should not be confused with the biblical circumcision of males, where only the foreskin is removed. Female “circumcision,” by contrast, is no act of circumcision at all, but is a horrific act of butchery in which part of a woman’s genitalia—not just excess skin tissue—is gruesomely removed. Female “circumcision” is truly a barbaric mutilation and has nothing to do with biblical circumcision.
Although various pagan cultures throughout history have “decorated” the human body with tattoos, cutting, scarring, and inserting ornaments that expand lips and earlobes, these body-altering and deforming practices have in recent decades become a craze in Western nations. While many call these practices “body art,” the serious risks and health consequences of tattooing and exotic piercing are seldom mentioned or considered.
God designed our skin as a barrier against disease-causing organisms. When we pierce that barrier, we create opportunities for bacteria and viruses to gain entrance to the tissues below the skin. Numerous reports warn that tattoos and piercings increase the risk of bacterial skin infections, granulomas and blood-borne diseases like tetanus, staph, hepatitis, and HIV, as well as allergic reactions to the substances and tools themselves. Many have warned especially against getting tattoos or piercings during pregnancy, due to risks of infection and the migration of toxic elements in tattoo pigments to the fetus. While tattoos and piercings are relatively inexpensive to acquire, they can be painful and expensive to remove—if they can be removed. Even the “temporary tattoos” done with henna can cause problems, and do not carry the approval of the U.S Food and Drug Administration.
God inspired Moses to instruct the children of Israel—a nation that God intended to be a light and example to the world—with the words, “You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor tattoo any marks on you” (Leviticus 19:28). Tattoos and cuttings on the flesh are unhealthful and carry the risk of infectious disease because they break the protective barrier that the skin provides. God made the human body “in His own image” (Genesis 1:27) and condemned these pagan religious customs, which deformed the body.
There is a reason why health professionals warn patients away from tattoos and exotic body piercings: they can be dangerous to your health!
The Bible defines marriage as a union of one man and one woman for life (Matthew 19:4–6) and takes a strong stand against sexual activity outside the confines of biblical marriage, such as adultery, fornication, and homosexuality (Leviticus 18). In sharp contrast to the modern notion that unrestricted sexual activity is liberating, the Bible pointedly states that “whoever commits adultery… lacks understanding” (Proverbs 6:32), and that sexually promiscuous people sin against their own bodies (1 Corinthians 6:9, 16–18; Romans 1:22–27). Past public policies against such behaviors may have had morality in mind, but their effect was to help prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases—including HIV/AIDS, which has been called the “plague of the twenty-first century.” Modern efforts to remove any moral consideration from public policy and to normalize promiscuity are simply helping to foster epidemic diseases. The old advice that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” has been largely forgotten, but it is still good advice—and is much less expensive in dollars and lives. Restricting sexual activity to husband and wife within a faithful monogamous marriage is by far the most effective way to avoid spreading sexually transmitted diseases. This was the biblical message God would have religious leaders convey—but it is a message often ignored today.
Medical studies reveal reasons for the strong biblical warnings against the sexually promiscuous lifestyles that are prevalent today. Numerous reports show that “gay and bisexual men are more severely affected by HIV than any other group,” and that they “are also at increased risk for other STDs, like syphilis, gonorrhea and chlamydia.” When the HIV virus gains entrance to the body, it weakens and eventually destroys the body’s immune system, leading to AIDS and making the person subject to other conditions and deadly opportunistic infections: pneumonia, tuberculosis, lymphomas, Kaposi’s sarcoma (cancer of blood vessel walls), shingles, encephalitis, and dementia. Studies also show that the more sexual partners you have, the higher the odds that you will contract HIV, which greatly increases the risks of contracting other infectious diseases and dying at a younger age. Since there are no cures for HIV/AIDS, medical sources acknowledge the importance of eliminating dangerous and risky behaviors: Don’t have multiple sexual partners, don’t share needles and syringes (such as used for injecting drugs), don’t have sex with prostitutes, and be aware that tattoo needles might not be sterile. This medical advice bears witness to the wisdom of ancient biblical instructions prohibiting high risk behaviors that bring serious consequences—fornication and adultery, homosexuality, and other dangerous activities.
The clear intent of many biblical principles is to prevent problems before they arise. Proverbs 22:3 states that “a prudent man foresees evil and hides himself, but the simple pass on and are punished.” From a public health perspective, most diseases can be prevented—saving lives and money—by taking wise precautions ahead of time.
Scripture explains that Satan has deceived the whole world (Revelation 12:9) and that leaders are often blind to obvious solutions (Isaiah 56:10; Matthew 15:14). Today’s theologians and pastors are mostly oblivious to the role they could play in preventing disease and promoting health by teaching people to differentiate between the clean and the unclean, in both food and behavior (Ezekiel 22:26).
However, the time is coming when the whole world will learn to live by the laws of God—including the biblical health laws—and will benefit from them. The Bible reveals that, while the “whole creation groans” for now (Romans 8:18–23), a “restoration of all things” lies just ahead (Acts 3:19–21). Jesus Christ will return to the earth to establish the Kingdom of God, and God’s law will be proclaimed to the whole world from Jerusalem (Isaiah 2:2–4; 9:6–7). In this coming Kingdom, church and state will be united (Revelation 5:10). Jesus Christ and the saints will teach people to obey the laws and statutes of God (Isaiah 30:20–21), and mankind will experience the wonderful results of changed behavior. The battle against sickness will be won, and disease will begin to disappear (Isaiah 35:5–6; Jeremiah 30:17). While this sounds incredible, it is part of the Gospel—the good news of what the future holds!
Editor’s Note: We hope you enjoyed this excerpt from our newest booklet, Biblical Principles of Health, by Dr. Douglas Winnail. Don’t request your own copy, yet! Every Tomorrow’s World subscriber will soon receive an invitation to be sent a free copy. Keep an eye on your mailbox! And if you are not a subscriber, click here to begin receiving your own free copies of Tomorrow’s World.