More than 25 people have contracted measles in a recent outbreak of the highly contagious disease in Texas. Many of those affected belong to the Eagle Mountain International Church, a megachurch whose pastor, Terri Copeland Pearsons, has previously made public statement skeptical about vaccines while referencing the widely discredited notion that vaccines can be linked to autism.
Thanks to widespread immunization initiatives, the once-common childhood disease of measles that used to kill up to 500 Americans a year was declared eliminated in the United States in 2000. Recent years have seen outbreaks throughout the country, though, as 222 people had measles in 2011 and 135 have been affected so far this year, even though overall vaccination rates remain high. The complications of measles include ear infections, pneumonia, encephalitis and death.
At 98 percent, the immunization rate in Texas is high. But Eagle Mountain International Church is one place where there is a “pocket” of unvaccinated people, including children. Church members who homeschool their children do not have to follow state law requiring vaccinations for children to attend public school.
Measles Spreads Quickly
A visitor to the church who had not been vaccinated had traveled to Indonesia where measles is still common. In the Eagle Mountain International Church alone, nine children and six adults, whose ages range from 4 months old to 44 years old — church staff and members and children in its onsite daycare center — have contracted measles; twelve had not been fully immunized and the youngest had yet to receive any measles immunizations.
Texas health officials notified the church about the outbreak on August 14 and Eagle Mountain has since held vaccination clinics on August 18 and August 25.
Megachurch Minister Links Vaccines to Autism
Even after state authorities had informed the church about the outbreak, Pearsons still expressed reservations about vaccines in an August 15 statement on the church website:
“Some people think I am against immunizations, but that is not true. Vaccinations help cut the mortality rate enormously. I believe it is wrong to be against vaccinations. The concerns we have had are primarily with very young children who have family history of autism and with bundling too many immunizations at one time. There is no indication of the autism connection with vaccinations in older children. Furthermore, the new MMR vaccination is without thimerosal (mercury), which has also been a concern to many.”
Pearsons’ father is Kenneth Copeland, a megachurch leader who has promoted faith healing and also linked vaccines to autism.
Scientists and doctors routinely point out that there’s no evidence supporting spacing out vaccines. Doing so could leave a child (like some from the megachurch who have gotten measles) vulnerable to disease.
Pearsons’ and Copeland’s statements cohere closely with those of anti-vaccine campaigners over the decades. Since vaccines were discovered and public health campaigns initiated to ensure that as high a rate as possible of people were vaccinated against infectious diseases (measles, whooping cough) which have historically killed hundreds, some have claimed that these efforts are a sign of government interference into people’s privacy — the very argument often invoked by conservative politicians in reference to public education and Obamacare.
Vaccine-Autism “Link” Has Been Widely Discredited
The two Texas ministers’ views also recall claims which many have expressed over the past decade and a half since British doctor Andrew Wakefield said he had found a link between the MMR and gastrointestinal issues in autistic children and set off a global panic, as fearful parents decided not to vaccinate their children.
Wakefield’s initial 1998 study has been retracted by the medical journal, The Lancet, that published it. He has been accused of “deliberate fraud” and since been stripped of the right to practice medicine in the U.K. Quite a few scientific studies have refuted any link between vaccines and autism.
The prevalence rate of autism has continued to rise (1 in 88 children are now diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder) as the diagnostic criteria for the neurodevelopmental disorder have been greatly broadened and public awareness and understanding have increased dramatically.
When my teenage son Charlie was diagnosed at the age of two in 1999, we were told he displayed all the symptoms of “classic autism” — impairments in communication and social interactions and repetitive behaviors. Now we have to add the phrases “severe” and “has intellectual disabilities” in explaining what he’s like.
With public schools around the United States opening, immunizations are no doubt on people’s minds as school children must have these to attend. Some parents seek exemptions on religious or philosophical grounds but states have made doing do so increasingly difficult and for good reason. In this day and age, those 25 or more children and adults in Texas who now have measles should never have contracted this deadly disease.
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