Infectious Diseases Strike Communities Where Vaccinations Are ‘Anti-God’

What do Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn and evangelical Dutch Christians have in common?

Two things: Both group respects their god so much, they remain passive when their kids get — and spread — the measles; and both communities are fighting an outbreak right now.

In the United States,

Another infectious disease is running through the Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn.  More than 50 children have developed measles this spring — the third or fourth measles problem in the community in the last six years, and following closely on the heels of a mumps outbreak in 2009–10 that affected more than 3,000 people… [T]he cause is quite simple. Kids aren’t getting vaccinated.

And this, from the Netherlands [article in Dutch]:

“God knows what’s good for your child. Vaccination is an expression of one’s lack of trust in Him,” says a Christian mom. …

In the Dutch Bible Belt, the vaccination rate is far below the national average. That makes an outbreak in the region a particularly large risk. Frequently, measles, mumps, and whooping cough emerge and spread at great speed.

If that happens, then everyone is at risk, believers and non-believers alike – at least those who haven’t been vaccinated, and those whose vaccine-related immunity has lessened over time.

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Unlike Tom Lehrer‘s ditty about infection, a measles epidemic is no fun. Adults, especially, can be laid on their backs by the disease. Some die.

Wikipedia says that

…the case fatality rate across the United States was three measles-attributable deaths per 1,000 cases, or 0.3%. In underdeveloped nations with high rates of malnutrition and poor healthcare, fatality rates have been as high as 28%. In immunocompromised patients (e.g. people with AIDS) the fatality rate is approximately 30%.

The Daily Beast reminds us that measles can cause pneumonia and encephalitis, and adds:

None of the current antivirals have activity against the infection. But the measles vaccine is remarkably effective, as good a shot as we have. In contrast to mumps and influenza vaccines, which have predictable failure rates — meaning vaccinated people can still develop the disease, though at substantially lower rates and with milder symptoms. With measles, to be vaccinated is to be safe.

For now, health authorities feel they must tiptoe around the tender religious sentiments, but Beast writer Kent Sepkowitz has no such reservations:

All of these infectious-disease problems — mumps, measles, fatal herpes — occurring in one large population does raise a simple question. And since I am not running for mayor and am thus not in need of the “prized slice of the electoral pie” ascribed to the Orthodox community and because I am Jewish, it is (perhaps) safe for me to ask it: what the f**k is going on in these areas of Brooklyn? How and why does the same group meet time and again with the same calamity of developing quite serious, completely preventable infections?

[S]piritual safety and medical safety never should be at odds. Despite the political cost to current and future mayors, these complicated, tense, and likely unpleasant discussions must be conducted with the affected Orthodox sects of Brooklyn to control not just the current outbreak but to prevent future problems.

The same goes for the Dutch Christian cousins, as far as I’m concerned.

Meanwhile, I keep wondering what the staunch believers in God’s benevolence would do if, heaven forfend, some of of their kids got infected with something more dramatic: say, novel coronavirus, or Marburg hemorrhagic fever. Would they let their brood infect others? Would they pray really hard, just like Catherine and Herbert Schaible did (and still have a couple of small corpses on their hands)?

I don’t always mind it when reason and religion are at odds, as I can appreciate the entertainment. But when religious fervor becomes a grave (ha!) risk for believers’ kids and for people who are made to share that risk but don’t share the superstition, maybe it’s time to truly begin holding the adults accountable.

About Terry Firma

Terry Firma, though born and Journalism-school-educated in Europe, has lived in the U.S. for the past 20-odd years. Stateside, his feature articles have been published in the New York Times, Reason, Rolling Stone, Playboy, and Wired. Terry is the founder of Moral Compass, a now dormant site that poked fun at the delusional claim by people of faith that a belief in God equips them with superior moral standards. He joined Friendly Atheist in 2013.