Weakened Immune Systems and Communion Practices
by George Koch (July / August 1999 — Volume 15, Number 4)
Recently, scientists have identified a powerful anti-AIDS agent in tears and saliva called lysozyme (see The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 96, issue 6, March 16, 1999). This well-known protein is an anti-cancer agent and is abundant in tears, saliva, and the urine of pregnant women.
This discovery may help to explain why AIDS can't be transmitted through saliva and could pave the way for the development of a promising new class of anti-AIDS drugs. Several other studies also illustrate the protective qualities of saliva.
I have followed the research of Anne Lagrange Loving for several years as she has helped us to appraise the health risk of certain practices related to Holy Communion. Her studies, and the study that I just cited, indicate that there is nothing that normally healthy human beings have to worry about when it comes to receiving communion. You can't receive AIDS from the common cup!
However, there is a class of people we should worry about — those whose immune systems have been compromised through disease or drug therapy. This would include people with AIDS, people taking immuno-suppressant drugs, and others.
As we debate our communion practices, we should not be swayed by the fear that somehow healthy people may get sick, as much as we should be swayed by "how do we accommodate our brother/sister at the table whose immune system has been compromised (in the same way that we accommodate those who are alcohol intolerant)." Scriptural counsel about how the "strong" should relate to those who are "weak" is applicable in this situation (Romans 14, 15).
While only a small percentage of any congregation will include people whose immune systems are severely compromised, congregations may want to reserve a few individual cups which have either been handwashed with bleach or cleaned in a sterilizer for such individuals.
George Koch is editor of Covalence and deployed director for campus ministry, Regions 5 and 6, for the ELCA Division for Higher Education and Schools, Chicago, Illinois.