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The Origins Of An Epidemic: How Right-Wing Religious Communities Give Measles A Chance To Spread

By Tara Culp-Ressler on September 11, 2013 at 9:16 am

"The Origins Of An Epidemic: How Right-Wing Religious Communities Give Measles A Chance To Spread"

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CREDIT: Shutterstock

At the end of last month, epidemiologists in Texas traced the source of a measles outbreak to a right-wing megachurch whose pastor has preached against vaccines. Even though about 98 percent of Texas residents are vaccinated against the highly contagious disease, the congregants who attended that evangelical church represented a pocket of unprotected people, and measles was able to spread rapidly.

Fortunately, that outbreak was able to be pretty well-contained — after the disease sickened about 21 people, Texas issued a public health alert and quickly found the source of the issue. The megachurch’s pastor was very cooperative and even agreed to host several free clinics to encourage the congregation to get their shots.

But the problem is that it’s not an isolated incident. Although the Texas church is the only current example in the United States, an incredibly similar situation is also unfolding in Europe.

The Netherlands has been struggling with a measles outbreak since May. So far, more than 1,200 people have been sickened, and 82 of them have ended up in the hospital. It’s the first time in the past 13 years that the country has experienced a rash of measles cases. And as the Irish Times reports, the “outbreak is concentrated in the country’s extensive Bible Belt, where the majority of fundamentalist Protestants do not believe in having their children vaccinated.”

According to a report issued last week by the Netherlands’ Center for Infectious Disease Control, the country has a 95 percent vaccination rate among the general population. But health officials expect the measles outbreak to keep getting worse. Why? Because it’s spreading rapidly among unvaccinated orthodox Protestant children. Of all of the Dutch people who have contracted measles this summer, over 96 percent hadn’t received their shots to protect them against it.

Health officials’ map of the number of reported measles cases shows how the infection originated in Netherland’s “Bible Belt” and spread out from there:

measles map

CREDIT: Eurosurveillance

The country’s epidemiologists are having difficulty tracking the outbreak because orthodox Protestants don’t usually seek treatment at the doctor after they become sick. The close-knit religious community believes in faith healing, and opposes medical interventions like vaccines because they undermine “divine providence.” And because they live among other orthodox Protestants, rather than being integrated among the rest of the country’s residents, they don’t benefit from the “herd effect” that helps prevent the spread of diseases — that is, the fact that vaccinating some people can end up protecting the unvaccinated ones around them.

Over the summer, the Dutch government began a massive public education campaign to encourage people to get their shots. Most Dutch citizens are vaccinated as part of a national inoculation program that began in the 1970s, but it’s not mandatory, so the orthodox Protestants have continued to refuse it. This isn’t the first time that a measles outbreak has spread throughout the Bible Belt. Between 1999 and 2000, more than 3,000 people were infected with the disease, and three children died.

The United Kingdom has also been struggling with a resurgence in measles cases over the past several years. The recent uptick hasn’t been linked to a particular religious community, but health officials do blame a widely-debunked study that claimed vaccines can cause autism. Thanks to that persistent myth, many parents still have misconceptions about the risks of inoculating their kids.

Measles is so contagious that 90 percent of the unvaccinated people who are exposed to it will get sick. Advances in vaccines have virtually eradicated the once-common childhood disease. But this type of resistance to vaccines is exactly what can allow it to come back.

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