Reported measles cases by municipality, 1 May - 28 August 2013 (panel A, n=1226) and vaccination coverage of first MMR vaccine dose by municipality for birth cohort 2010 at the age of two years (panel B, n=184230), in the Netherlands. Graphic: Knol, et al., 2013

By Tara Culp-Ressler
11 September 2013

(Think Progress) – 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.

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. [more]

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

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