Polio, measles, mumps, and pertussis . . . OH MY! Will the anti-vaccination movement create an outbreak of diseases in your church?
In 2013 Texas megachurch Eagle Mountain International became the center of the debate over vaccinations after a measles outbreak. Of the more than 20 confirmed cases of measles in the area, at least eight were members of the church, and 15 of the cases were in Tarrant County where the church is located. At least 12 of those infected weren’t fully immunized against measles. People attending the church and using their daycare facility were exposed to the disease by a visitor to the church who had recently traveled to a country where measles is common, a public health spokesman said.
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A 4-month-old who contracted the potentially deadly disease from the church campus wasn’t old enough to have received the measles vaccine yet, which is typically given at age 1, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The church had previously come under re for what some said was preaching against vaccinations. However, after the outbreak, the church’s pastor began urging the congregation to get immunized. The church also offered free vaccination clinics and advised those who didn’t attend one of the clinics to quarantine themselves at home for two weeks to contain the spread.
Could an outbreak like this shut your church down for a season? How could the vaccination debate affect your church?
Rules and Regulations
The CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommend that healthy children get vaccinated against 14 different diseases by age 2, along with a yearly flu shot. In fact, the government supports vaccines so strongly that any uninsured child can get his or her shots at no cost.
While no mandatory federal vaccination laws exist, all 50 states require vaccinations for children entering public school. However, all 50 states also allow medical exemptions, 48 states (all but Mississippi and West Virginia) permit religious exemptions, and 20 states allow exemptions for philosophical reasons, the National Conference of State Legislatures reports.
The “unprecedented expansion of measles in the United States…has raised questions about whether the laws concerning contagious diseases are sufficient, as well as what specific policies and procedures should be implemented by churches and schools when faced with these issues,” writes Lisa Runquist in “Churches, Schools, and the Unvaccinated Movement.” Runquist is an attorney specializing in nonprofits. “Contagious disease policies and procedures should not be limited to measles; rather, the development of these policies should be broad enough to cover other similar outbreaks.”
Infectious-disease specialists say outbreaks can happen when a breakdown of “herd immunity” occurs. The CDC’s Immunization Services Division Director explains: “For a community to be fully protected against a disease, 80 to 90 percent of its population needs to have been vaccinated. If coverage drops significantly below that level, a school, a church, or a neighborhood becomes susceptible to the disease, and babies who aren’t old enough to immunize yet are at the greatest risk of becoming sick.”
As a result, in many parts of the United States, the number of unvaccinated children has risen to the point where the percentage of those vaccinated is no longer sufficient to limit the spread of these diseases if and when they are re-introduced, according to an ABC News report.
Studies have shown that children who aren’t immunized are more likely to become infected with measles and pertussis. Additionally, younger children often are the most vulnerable, the AAP reports, with 90 percent of deaths from pertussis occurring in infants younger than 6 months old.
Although diseases such as measles and pertussis may’ve been eradicated in the United States, they still exist in other parts of the world where travel continues to increase. This has resulted in the spread of rare diseases such as the Ebola virus but also of more common diseases. Several recent measles outbreaks in the U.S. have brought this issue to the forefront.
The CDC reports that the U.S. experienced a record number of measles cases in 2014, with 644 cases from 27 states. This is the greatest number of cases since measles were declared to be eradicated in the U.S. 16 years ago. And in the first two months of 2015, the United States experienced a large, multi-state measles outbreak linked to an amusement park in California. One or more travelers appear to have visited the park during the time they were contagious.
The Anti-Vaxx Movement
Refusal to vaccinate is on the rise, according to Dr. William Schaffner, chairman of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville. Schaffner says this is partly because health officials have done such a good job eradicating diseases through immunization. He said people no longer remember a time when measles caused more than 400 deaths a year, and there is increasing skepticism about the effectiveness and safety of vaccination.
“It’s like we’ve turned back the clock to the pre-vaccine era and put our children and our neighbors at risk for profound illness,” Schaffner said in an ABC News interview.
By kindergarten, most students have had vaccines for preventable diseases, but the number isn’t spread evenly across the country. Even within states that have high exemption rates, “vaccination exemptions have been shown to cluster geographically, so vaccine-preventable disease outbreaks can still occur where unvaccinated persons cluster in schools and communities,” the CDC reports.
And the AAP states: “Serious events occur more often from the actual infection or disease, rather than from the vaccine; therefore, the vaccine is much safer.”
One well-known “anti-vaxxer” is actress Jenny McCarthy, who led vaccine opposition several years ago, claiming a connection between vaccines and autism. However, at least seven large studies in major medical journals have since found no association between the MMR vaccine and autism spectrum disorder.
But some parents are still leery of the vaccines or have religious or philosophical reasons for refusing them. A 2004 study found that unvaccinated children tended to come from families with $75,000 or higher income and college-educated parents who have easy access to information, health guidelines, and medical care. Some of the most common reasons parents of unvaccinated children cited for not immunizing their children include concerns regarding the overall safety of vaccines, distrust of medical entities such as health-care professionals “in the system” and the Centers for Disease Control, and the belief that children are given too many vaccinations at too young an age (“too much too soon”). These parents also tended to have higher confidence levels in alternative healthcare providers, friends and other parents, the Internet, and the organization Dissatisfied Parents Together (DPT), a widely recognized anti-vaccination organization.
Sondra Guy, a mother of seven on Colorado’s Western Slope, was a pro-vaccine registered nurse until she had her first child. “Our oldest child became very ill after his first set of vaccines. He was chronically ill as an infant even though he was home with me all the time. He didn’t even go to the nursery at church. He developed serious food allergies as well. After we were advised to stop his vaccines, I started doing a lot of research on the safety and efficacy of the vaccinations. What I found out was disturbing to say the least.”
The Impact on Children’s Ministry
So what does all this mean for your church?
Find out the laws in your particular state, and check with your insurance company to see what steps, if any, you need to take to ensure your church policies match their requirements. Then discuss all of this with your church’s leadership. Put plans in place for how your church would deal with exposure to a contagious disease—both with how and what to tell families, and what your church’s response will be.
It’s a fine line to walk between protecting kids and living in fear of what could potentially happen. Should you teach one way or another about vaccines? Should your church have an official policy about unvaccinated kids?
“Should ‘the church’ have the authority to discriminate against unvaccinated children and refuse to teach them about Jesus? I have to wonder what Jesus would have to say about that,” Guy says.
Yet even among parents who do vaccinate, opinions differ on whether or not children’s ministries should require vaccinations and/or disclosure of vaccine exemptions. Anita Gillispie, a mom of four in Tulsa, Oklahoma, says, “I wouldn’t agree with a church that has a vaccination policy. I feel the church should be open to all people, regardless. Those who choose to vaccinate will be typically protected. Those who don’t, do so at their own risk. The rest is in God’s hands.”
But other parents feel it could be risky, especially for infants.
“I actually do wish that more churches would have policies on vaccinations,” says Heidi Chase, a mom of four in Minneapolis, Minnesota. “We had a situation with some unvaccinated kiddos at our old church and a baby who was too little to have all of her vaccines. She almost died because of coming into contact with pertussis. If I have my baby in my arms when I go pick up my big kids, and an anti-vaxxer comes in contact with my baby, that is a real concern. Church should be a safe place for my whole family, not just my kids who are old enough to have been vaccinated.”
Attorney Runquist says, “Regardless of the religious beliefs of the church, it should be noted that you need to protect your congregants, especially your children who cannot make decisions for themselves.”
Who Vaccinates and Who Doesn’t?
Consider these insights into families who vaccinate and those who don’t.
• According to CNN, families of unvaccinated kids are more likely to be wealthier with annual incomes of more than four times the poverty level; white, non-Hispanic; married, college-educated couples who are covered by private health insurance.
• Overall, 68 percent of American adults say childhood vaccinations should be required, while 30 percent say parents should be able to decide.
• Among all age groups, young adults are more likely to say vaccinating children should be a parent’s choice. Some 41 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds say parents should be able to decide whether or not their child gets vaccinated; but only 20 percent of adults 65 or older share that opinion, according to the Pew Research Center.
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What do the growing ranks of unvaccinated children mean for your ministry? What will you do if an out- break occurs? One thing is certain: how you approach pro- and anti-vaccination families will only grow in importance as this emerging movement takes hold.
The author, Kristi Rector, is a writer and editor, and mom to three kids.