Are religious people the cause of the measles outbreak?

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: measles, religion and the government.

Measles continues to spread in over half the states in this country. So does the debate over whether parents should be able to exempt their children from being vaccinated. The CDC reports that for the past three years, exemption requests have been on the rise.

MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: Many media reports attribute that rise to religious objections to vaccines. But is that really true? Some of the biggest outbreaks have been in the Jewish, Amish, and Orthodox Christian communities. And that led to a push in several states to eliminate religious vaccine exemptions. Only one succeeded.

Still, not all exemptions are for faith-based objections. WORLD Radio’s Sarah Schweinsberg spoke with parents in Portland, Oregon.

SARAH SCHWEINSBERG, REPORTER: Angela Carnahan watches her two-year-old daughter play on their neighborhood swing set.

AUDIO: [Sound of Angela and daughter walking]

Carnahan says she never questioned vaccines until her nephew had a negative reaction.

CARNAHAN: So when that happened, I was like, oh, I need to start reading into these ingredients and doing a little bit of research. What am I putting in my child’s body? Why am I just taking my doctor’s word for it?

Carnahan and her husband decided to postpone vaccinations until their daughter was older. But then four months ago, the toddler caught a serious virus.

CARNAHAN: And so she ended up having a febrile seizure, which means that your body basically shuts down and restarts because the fever’s so high and one of the side effects of all vaccines are febrile seizures.

The Carnahans have decided if their daughter is prone to seizures, vaccinating will be too risky. They are opting out of vaccines for their infant son as well. When their children are school age, they’ll pursue either religious or philosophical exemptions. Oregon is one of a handful of states that has both.

Carnahan is a Christian, but she says her decision not to vaccinate is based more on science than her faith.

CARNAHAN: I don’t think the Bible speaks against vaccines per se… But I also, you know, think that God gave us so many natural ways to heal our bodies.

But some Christians do draw more direct lines between Biblical principles and vaccines.

Julia Gudev and her family immigrated to the Portland area in the 90s along with 100,000 other Slavs from Russia and Eastern Europe. A 2016 study found only 85 percent of this immigrant community is vaccinated for measles—well below the 94 percent herd immunity threshold.

Gudev says many in the community object to vaccines because they believe some are made with cells from aborted babies.

GUDEV: And as a Christian, I’m against abortion. And so to inject my child with aborted fetal cells would go again to my personal religious conviction.

The Slavic community’s experience in the Communist Soviet Union also prompts many to value medical freedom and distrust anything mandated by the government.

Gudev homeschools her children, so she hasn’t had to claim any exemptions yet. But she fears for the future—especially because this year Oregon was one of the states pushing to get rid of non-medical vaccine exemptions.

GUDEV: Most of our community has just been really enjoying our freedoms. When a mandated vaccine bill came along, this was the first time that we’ve become so concerned about our future here in America.

Melissa Sullivan is a vaccine choice advocate who heads Health Choice Connecticut. She says in many states it’s much easier to claim religious exemptions than medical ones. In Connecticut just 250 children have a medical exemption compared to 1,200 with religious exemptions.

But Sullivan says many of the parents choosing religious exemptions aren’t necessarily associated with any religion.

SULLIVAN: Because our law doesn’t say you have to be involved in an organized religion, it is really loosely interpreted. So we don’t ever say to parents, um, to take a religious exemption, you have to be a Christian Scientist or you have to be such and such. If it’s against what you would do as a parent, um, then it’s against your religious beliefs. Because our first priority is to protect our children.

Wendy Parmet is the director of the Center for Health Policy and Law at Northeastern University. She says although religious exemptions are climbing, the increase is a symptom of larger cultural distrust in institutions.

PARMET: It is true that at the moment we’ve had some outbreaks in some communities, religious communities, um, it’s a function to some extent of insularity of these communities, but that’s not limited to religious communities. There’s a general and more pervasive, society-wide, just distrust now in science and in government and in the idea that individuals sometimes have to do things for the greater good. This is a much deeper, broader problem.

Parmet sympathizes with frustrated healthcare workers worried about eradicated diseases returning. But she said forcing people to get medical intervention they disagree with isn’t the answer.

PARMET: What is it about the laws and structures that we have that are fueling some of the backlash. What are other ways that we can incentivize people to vaccinate? If you just keep ordering people to do something that they think is going to kill their children, it’s not going to work.

For WORLD Radio, I’m Sarah Schweinsberg reporting from Portland, Oregon.

(AP Photo/Paul Vernon) In this Friday, May 17, 2019 photo, Starr Roden, left, a registered nurse and immunization outreach coordinator with the Knox County Health Department, administers a vaccination. 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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One comment on “Are religious people the cause of the measles outbreak?

  1. John Mays says:

    I thought the piece on vaccine exemptions was a little one-sided. How could you leave unchallenged a claim that vaccines contain aborted fetal cells? According to the parent, that was a religious objection. And is it true that febrile seizures are a side-effect of vaccines? Did a doctor advise the parent that this was a serious risk? I’d also like to know how these parents feel about the risks of contracting measles and spreading it. Finally, I know this piece was focused on non-religious objections to vaccination, but I’m curious to know what the most common religious objections are. DISCLAIMER: I had measles as a child before the vaccine was introduced, but my children were all vaccinated.

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