The congregation of Eagle Mountain International Church in Newark, Texas, recently discovered that prayer is no substitute for vaccination.
After visiting Indonesia, an unidentified visitor to the megachurch 50 miles outside Dallas -- where ministers have long favored faith-healing over vaccinations -- infected at least 21 people in the church and neighboring towns with measles. One victim was a 4-month old baby too young to receive a vaccination and thus totally dependent on others to do so.
Confronted with the measles outbreak, church leaders changed their tune, launched a vaccination drive, hosted vaccination clinics and encouraged the entire congregation to get immunized. The Old Testament is “full of precautionary measures,” senior pastor Terri Pearsons said after the mini-epidemic.
Theological revelation aside, Pearsons and other church leaders should have thought about this sooner. They and other vaccine resisters -- from wealthy suburbanites who worry about the dangers they've heard from celebrities to conspiracy theorists who see only corporate profits driving a push to cover-up risks -- are directly to blame for spreading unwarranted fear of vaccines.
Just before the outbreak, on Aug. 15, senior pastor Pearsons voiced her concerns about vaccines on the church’s website.
“Some people think I am against immunizations, but that is not true. …The concerns we have had are primarily with very young children who have a family history of autism and with bundling too many immunizations at one time.”
This worry has nothing to do with religion. It has everything to do with a trusted leader's nonsensical belief in a link between autism and vaccines -- a connection completely debunked in science. The paranoia over the dangers of "too many vaccines" is a notion that can flourish only when little is known about vaccines and even less is understood about the incredibly dense microbial fog of nasty viruses, bacteria and pollutants that constantly challenges the immune system of kids.
Our grandparents, having buried too many of their loved ones who died from smallpox, typhus and flu, would be shocked. Yet the very success of vaccines has left too many of us blind to what they do for us.
The outbreak at the Texas church was completely preventable. If vaccine resistance continues to grow, there will be another completely preventable outbreak of measles or something worse, such as polio. There is nothing in medical science that would suggest that anyone not vaccinate their children. And there is nothing against vaccines in any religious text, either.
Arthur Caplan is the head of the Division of Medical Ethics at NYU Langone Medical Center.
First published August 31 2013, 1:24 AM