Recent Outbreaks of Measles Traced to Vaccine Deniers

Bad Astronomy
The entire universe in blog form
Aug. 26 2013 8:00 AM

Anti-Vaccine Megachurch Linked to Texas Measles Outbreak

shutterstock_measles
Measles is a potentially deadly disease, killing one or more out of a thousand who contract it.

Photo by Shutterstock/Sam72

In Texas, a (most likely now formerly) anti-vaccine megachurch is the epicenter of a measles outbreak that so far has infected 20 people.

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

The Eagle Mountain International Church is led by pastor Terri Copeland Pearsons, daughter of televangelist Kenneth Copeland. (The church is part of his ministries.) Pearsons claims she’s not anti-vax, but the church does promote faith healing, and in August Pearsons voiced concern over vaccinations and autism, a link which has been thoroughly debunked. Kenneth Copeland has promoted anti-vax and anti-science nonsense on his television show in the past (start at 20:10 into the video).

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Apparently, the measles virus was introduced by a visitor to the church who had recently traveled overseas (a common way the virus gets into the population). All these measles cases are reported to have been in families that chose not to vaccinate, and all the children infected to have been home-schooled. (I’ll note that Texas law requires children attending public school to be vaccinated.)

The good news is that after all this, Pearsons has started promoting immunization to the congregation. Also, the infected people are probably past the stage where they can infect others, so most likely we’ve seen the peak of this particular outbreak.

This story punctuates how vaccine denial puts others at risk. Sadly, more evidence of this is easy to find.

[UPDATE (Aug. 26 at 18:00 UTC): I originally neglected to add that the Netherlands is suffering through a massive outbreak, with over 1160 cases reported. This has happened in a region that is largely anti-vaccination due to either religious reasons (the area is called the Dutch "Bible Belt"; one in five cases are due to this (this number is too low, see Update 2 below)) or because they have embraced anthroposophism, a form of quackery which employs the use of provably useless therapies like homeopathy.]

[UPDATE 2 (Aug. 26 at 18:30 UTC): Dr. Marco Langbroek notes that the Dutch Healthcare Agency tags the religious Protestant community with close to 90 percent of the cases, which is very different than the source linked above; given that this is from the official health agency, it seems more reliable.]

[Update 3 and hopefully the last (Aug 26. at 18:45 UTC): To be clear: About 20 percent of the anti-vaxxers in that region are part of the Protestant group, but they make up the majority of the measles cases reported. There has been some difficulty with translation, and for that I apologize.]

In March, there was a substantial outbreak of measles in a Jewish community in Brooklyn, N.Y. Over the course of three months, 58 cases were reported—in one case, a child who came down with measles also contracted pneumonia. Two pregnant women were hospitalized due to this outbreak, and one of them miscarried. All of the cases were from people who refused or delayed vaccinations.

virus

Photo byPeeradach Rattanakoses/Shutterstock(modified by Phil Plait)

That seems a pretty clear lesson.

As the Wall Street Journal reports,

The department traced the outbreak to a person who it concluded brought the virus from a trip to London, says Jay Varma, the department's deputy commissioner for disease control. Overall, vaccination rates are high in the communities, he says, but the outbreak then started in a small group of families with members who refused vaccines, he says.

Not every outbreak is so easy to trace, but certainly low vaccination rates will substantially increase the odds of one. Vancouver had one in July, and there was worry about one when two cases popped up in California that same month.

I can’t stress this enough: Measles is an entirely preventable disease. If enough people get vaccinated then there is herd immunity, and the virus can’t find enough hosts to live in, preventing others from getting infected.

Measles is not a disease we should screw around with. Out of 1,000 people who contract it, one or two will die, and many more will require hospitalization. In general, those at risk are seniors and infants too young to be vaccinated. Approximately 100,000 children a year worldwide die of measles. That’s more than the entire population of my hometown of Boulder, Colo. Imagine an entire city of children dying from a preventable disease, and perhaps you can understand why I’m so vocal about this.

Talk to your board-certified doctor, and if he or she recommends it, get your vaccinations. Not just for measles, but for many other easily preventable (and potentially deadly) diseases as well. Remember, adults need boosters every so often, so make sure you ask about that, too.

Vaccines are one of the greatest triumphs of modern medicine. Don’t believe the anti-vaxxers. Get the truth.

My thanks to David Pijning for the information about the Dutch outbreak linked to anthroposophism.

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