Newspaper article International New York Times

Children, Measles and Faith

Newspaper article International New York Times

Children, Measles and Faith

Article excerpt

Religious exemptions to vaccination are a contradiction in terms and should be eliminated.

Measles is back. Last year, about 650 cases were reported in the United States -- the largest outbreak in almost 20 years. This year, more than a hundred have already been reported.

Parents have chosen not to vaccinate their children because they can; 19 states have philosophical exemptions to vaccination, and 47 have religious exemptions. The other reason is that parents are not scared of the disease. But I'm scared. I lived through the 1991 Philadelphia measles epidemic.

Between October 1990 and June 1991, more than 1,400 people living in Philadelphia were infected with measles, and nine children died. The epidemic started when, after returning from a trip to Spain, a teenager with a blotchy rash attended a rock concert at the Spectrum. By Nov. 29, 96 schoolchildren had been stricken with the illness; a week later, it was 124; by the end of December, the number had risen to 258, and the first child had died.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sent a team to determine whether the strain of measles was particularly virulent. It wasn't. Investigators found that the deaths had nothing to do with the strain that was circulating and everything to do with the parents.

Two fundamentalist Christian churches -- Faith Tabernacle Congregation and First Century Gospel Church -- were at the heart of the outbreak. Children had not been vaccinated, and when they became ill, their parents prayed instead of taking them to the hospital to receive the intravenous fluids or oxygen that could have saved the lives of those with the worst cases. "If I go to God and ask him to heal my body," said a church member, Gordon Korn, "I can't go to a doctor for medicine. You either trust God or you trust man."

Public health officials turned to the courts to intervene. First, they got a court order to examine the churches' children in their homes, then to admit children to the hospital for medical care. Finally, they did something that had never been done before or since: They got a court order to vaccinate children against their parents' will. Children were briefly made wards of the state, vaccinated and returned to their parents. At the time, a religious exemption to vaccination had been on the books in Pennsylvania for about a decade.

To prevent doctors from violating his church's beliefs against vaccination, the pastor of the Faith Tabernacle Church asked the American Civil Liberties Union to represent him. It refused. "There is certainly a free exercise of religion claim by the parents," said Deborah Levy, of the Philadelphia chapter of the A.C.L.U., "but there is also a competing claim that parents don't have the right to martyr their children."

When spring came and the epidemic faded, C. …

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