Measles and the Least of These

Measles and the Least of These May 4, 2019
Image from the CDC

by Cindy Kunsman

I’ve tried to write about this subject many times, and I find myself flooded with a myriad of thoughts. I also fear the loss of friendships because I know that it became a sacred cow that determines whether or not a parent is a worthy and honorable Christian homeschooler. Vox beat me to the punch, and I hope that many parents will read their excellent article about Measles and take it to both heart and mind. I’d like to add a Quiverfull spin to it, and also remind people that all intervention comes with risk. Physicians make decisions based on the benefit of intervention when weighed against the risk that their intervention creates. I do not envy them in this.

I could write many reasons why I choose a rather centrist position on vaccines, but I will limit it to just one that may explain why I don’t hold a black and white view on the matter. Perhaps the most significant factor came through my mother’s church friend who lost two toddlers to encephalitis within hours after each received the MMR vaccine. Her guilt and complicated grief grew exponentially when her second toddler died after she consented to the MMR vaccine, believing that such wicked lightning couldn’t possibly strike twice. There was no doubt in the physician’s mind as to the cause of death for both children, rare though it was. I wish that I’d interviewed that mother when I reached adulthood, but I no longer have the opportunity. I only have the second hand, layperson’s anecdote which means little. I don’t even know if the CDC would have adequately captured data about these deaths which occurred shortly before 1971.

Yet I know this with assurance: when I’ve encouraged friends to vaccinate their daughters who care for children or the elderly in private homes, they respond as if I’ve urged them to offer their children on some fatally evil altar of sacrifice. They saw my pleas as a criticism of one of the most sacred of choices they had made as parents. I was treated as if I’d fallen just short of an insult to the Christian Faith, even though these Evangelical Christians should have no religious issues with vaccinations.

Ideas for Quiverfull Acolytes to Ponder

I offer some Quiverfull directed arguments in the hope that they will help some parents make more informed decisions. Thanks to the Vox article, I need not reinvent or redefine the wheel. Now is not the time for black and white thought or even a centrist attitude toward the new epidemic.

Changing Seasons. The article capitalizes on a very significant point that falls flat when I present it to my friends: the incidence of many childhood diseases has skyrocketed. When you live on the slope of a mountain and never see water pooling around your home, you don’t buy flood insurance. Flooding doesn’t present a tangible threat, so it warrants no real consideration. For several decades, we in the US enjoyed low risk of infection outside of communities like the Amish who suffered small, annual outbreaks of childhood illnesses. Today, we face a very different world.

In one of the letters that the Apostle Paul wrote to his protege, Timothy, he advises being ready to preach “in season and out of season.” Have the seasons not changed from the days when Measles and the like were rarely heard of in the US? Paul’s letter goes on to charge Timothy to be sober in all things, enduring hardship. Our world today faces a new season of hardship, but so many Christians cling to the time when everyone enjoyed low risk of such things. The flood waters now rise, but the floods of Influenza that devastated the US circa 1920 and the fear of polio that my parents and grandparents knew have long since been forgotten. It is easier for many to bury their heads with “likeminded” friends to repeat to themselves that summer has not ended and that the water is not truly rising around them. I honestly don’t understand it.

Not All Viruses Are Created Equal. The other element of the Measles crisis that the Vox article highlights concerns the ease of the spread of that virus. The robust Measles virus hangs around much longer than other viruses, it is transmitted through the air which we all must breathe, the infected person generally spreads the virus to as many as eighteen other people, and children under the age of five are most apt to die from the infection. Many other viruses present lesser threats to life and health, and many are much harder to transmit. Measles now presents a crisis because of it’s staying power and the ease at which it can be transmitted.

Herd Vulnerability. ‘Herd immunity’ became a key factor in nearly eradicating preventable diseases. We know now that like the Amish communities where infections used to be relatively contained, tightly knit communities and subcultures now foster Measles like huge incubators, but all within it become ‘at risk’. Think of a homeschooling co-op where many families with unvaccinated children gather together, but most of them lack the immunity that vaccines would have provided. (It’s almost like college. The moms who make the decisions enjoy immunity just like they benefit from a good education, but their children don’t have the same benefits or opportunities to acquire them.)

Reproductive Consequences. The Quiverfull culture places such high value on birthing, I wonder if anyone ever thought seriously about the threat that many childhood illnesses pose to reproductive health? Grown males under 40 who contract Mumps after puberty face a 40% incidence of testicular inflammation which can cause significant organ atrophy and sterility. Measles can also produce the same condition, though its prevalence is much lower. In women, Mumps can also cause ovarian inflammation.

I’ve also never read or heard anything in Quiverfull circles about the devastating harm that German Measles (Rubella) presents to the unborn if the mother develops the infection during pregnancy. Contact with a person infected with Rubella can also cause miscarriage. The people who pioneered homeschooling developed immunity to Rubella because they endured the infection as children. But what of their children and grandchildren who were not vaccinated? Have they placed them at much higher risk?

Moral Duty. During Jesus’ lifetime, each citizen was required by law to carry the gear of a Roman soldier for one mile if they were asked to do so. The Jews hated it, but Jesus told them to carry their gear for two miles. They were to go out of their way to care for those whom they deemed outsiders if not outright enemies. Jesus told followers to love their enemies and to do good, even to those who treated them poorly. I think of this principle and how it applies to the growing problem of childhood diseases that are now on the rise. Christians must bless and help others, treating others as they would wish to be treated. I don’t know why that virtue does not apply to a Christian’s duty to help their own community – a community that their faith compels to reach with God’s message of love and hope. (is there hope in disregard?) One friend of mine claims that immunizations do not prevent infections while she tells me that her daughter with whooping cough continues to work at the local nursing home, caring for the elderly there. When two residents contracted the infection, instead of realizing that her daughter had transmitted the illness, she saw it all as evidence that vaccines do not work. What???!!! She did not speak to me for two months after that because I suggested that she consider that her daughter served as the vector that transmitted the illness to two very vulnerable people. Didn’t her daughter owe them some duty to protect them from such a thing?

Jesus also said that at the end of all things, He would separate people into two groups. To one, He will say, “Well done, good and faithful, servant. Enter into the joy of the Lord.” To the other group, He lists the many maladies that He suffered alone without them, ranging from thirst to a prison sentence with no comfort. When the people tell Him that they didn’t know of his suffering, He says, “When you’ve done it unto the least of these, you have done it to me.”

If you oppose vaccines, please think about whether you’d ever want to infect Jesus with Measles and why the issue of vaccines overrides your duty “unto the least of these.”

Cindy is a nurse who was raised in Word of Faith, a Second Generation Adult of cultic Christianity. She and her husband dabbled in Calvinism and Theonomy as a foil to Christian anti-intellectualism, and they were exit counseled together when they walked away from a church that embraced Gothard’s teachings. Cindy escaped many Quiverfull pitfalls but became a social pariah for failing to birth a family. She’s been decrying the abuses of the Patriarchy Movement since 2004, and she writes about spiritual abuse at her blog, Under Much Grace. Read more about her here.

Editor’s note: The issues surrounding vaccinations and diseases takes on a more urgent note as we have more preventable illnesses like measles having widespread outbreaks.

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  • Friend

    I got my polio vaccine in church, in more enlightened times, when American Christians had a better grasp of the risk of vaccine complications versus the horrors of that disease.

    I fear that this piece will not persuade even one person to be vaccinated, and it might even backfire. The encephalitis story is a childhood memory from 1971. Medicine and vaccines have improved since 1971. Yes, medical complications can occur, but I would rather have seen a link to hard data about vaccine complications. Here is a link about the MMR from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

    To amplify: the centrist position here is not whether every parent should make a private decision about having their children vaccinated. (Where would that end? Maybe with stopping a child’s cancer treatment, with a documented 90% success rate for that specific cancer, because chemotherapy is not “natural”?) The centrist position is that some people cannot be vaccinated because of age or immunity status. A failure of herd immunity can bring about the deaths of infants and cancer patients.

    Even the Amish are not completely opposed to vaccination:

    Many decisions against vaccinating have little to do with evidence-based work, and much to do with wild, irresponsible stories about the loss of individual freedom, about dead baby parts being bought and sold to make the vaccines, and the debunked autism story. Christianity Today has a piece about moral objections to the measles vaccine:

  • SAO

    That whooping cough story is one of the more horrifying examples of scientific ignorance I’ve seen. I Googled around on the MMR. The early measles vaccines had fever as a common side effect —in the late 60s. My unscientific reading of it is that live vaccines worked better than killed vaccines and that too much of the stuff in the measles virus that cause encephalitis were not killed.

    Vaccines are much better today. Currently, the risk of encephalitis and another side effect is 1 in 100,000. That’s incidence of encephalitis and febrile convulsions, not the mortality from them. My take is that medicine has improved and either is almost certainly more survivable than in the 70s. More importantly, the death rate from measles in the developed world in 1 in 10,000 or 10 times higher than the complication rate of the vaccine.

    I had a friend whose neice had febrile convulsions from the pertussis vaccine, so she didn’t vaccinate her son. He got whooping cough. It was so awful, she figured a few scary febrile convulsions was nothing in comparison. She got her next child vaccinated — and there were no complications.

  • SAO

    Fun measles facts:
    A person with measles is infectious for up to 4 days before symptoms show. That means even if you quarantine people with measles, they’ve had time to transmit the virus to others before anyone knows they have it.
    95% vaccination rates are required for herd immunity (ie that no gets measles, so unvaccinated people won’t either).
    Some states have less than 95% of their kindergarteners vaccinated for measles. In those states, some kindergartens have as many at 15% unvaccinated kids.
    90% of measles cases infect someone else, if there are unvaccinated people to infect.
    Measles is transmitted in the air. It can remain active in the air in a closed space (say a doctor’s exam room) for up to 2 hours.
    30% of measles cases have complications. The most common one is diarrhea, but 6% of measles patients get pneumonia, which is the most common cause of measles-related death. Acute encephalitis occurs in 1 in 10,000, but 25% of those who get it suffer permanent neurological damage of some degree (ie minor or major).
    The vaccine with high complication rates (probably the one used in Cindy’s anecdote) was withdrawn in 1975. The MMR is much safer, now. In fact, encephalitis is no longer on the list of bad reactions, although fever remains on the list of possible negative reactions to the vaccine.

    This information is easy to find on the CDC website.

  • In my first draft of this, the thing was so long that I deleted more than a third of what I’d written. I served on the local Pennsylvania Nurses Association board when I still lived there, and our Amish communities were often a hot topic of discussion. My soapbox vaccination of choice has been Pertussus because of the devastating and annual problem of Whooping Cough among the Amish. I also have interesting experiences doing HEDIS reviews, auditing charts in physicians offices for compliance with immunization standards. That has been disturbing, to say the least. I chose to pare it all down to the most significant factor, noting that it cannont be anything more than a layperson’s anectdote.

    There is something that happens to your thinking when, despite the low incidence of some complication, either you or someone that you know suffers that complication — especially when they are grave. You do lose perspective, but in the light of risks weighed against benefits, and in a different season, it hopefully should help recalibrate things.

  • None of the parents that I know who hold so tightly to the anti-vax stance will trust anything that the CDC has to say. After looking at my first draft tome, I opted to limit things to more of a layperson’s perspective after I emphasized that physicians (and public health agencies) make decisions based on the benefits versus risks. Interventions always involve risks. I don’t know that anyone has emphasized that point well enough in thie broader discussion of the problem.

    Since my immunizations in early childhood, I’ve had measles only repeated twice, and I’ve had a repeat MMR as well because employers in healthcare track titers. I think about that mother every time, but i trust that the many great benefits outweigh the risks for everyone. And for all I know, it is only an urban myth now.

    (And thanks for so graciously and delicately adding this info about the game changing 1975 withdraw of the vaccine that those two children would have received.)

  • Most of the people that I know who won’t or (wouldn’t in the past when it was their decision) will not read Christianity Today because they believe that it’s too liberal. Some will read World Magazine. The others will read Charisma. They’re definitely not going to trust anything on the CDC site.

    But cheers to CT for what they’ve written. The parents who I know who can cite the abortion issue as the root source of their argument are the ones who also chose to vaccinate their kids, oddly enough. Today, I think that the anti-vax business has become so commonplace in the Quiverfull culture that the rationales have drifted so far away from that initial moral concern that many no longer remember it. What happened to the imperative to always have a defensive argmuent to offer when challenged? That’s been forgotten by most of the people that I know, and they go into a littany about the alleged risks to their child’s health instead.

    I have a friend whose daughter does have cancer, and I suggested that she should vaccinate her other chlidren to protect her. The whole house came down with Whooping Cough, and she still railed on and on about how the vaccines do nothing to aid immunity. I nearly bit my tongue off to refrain from asking her what kind of crack she was smoking.

    I have added my thoughts to the larger discussion, though I had to seriously curtail it. Perhaps someone at World or Charisma will happen across this much, adding their voices to those here at NLQ, Christianity Today, and the other religious sources that have braved the topic. That’s how No Longer Quivering and Quivering Daughters came about. I’m just grieved to consider what will need to happen first before the core of the subculture has reason to rethink their stance.

  • Friend

    Thank you so much for your thoughtful response to my challenging words. I appreciate it, and I appreciate you. Alas, yes, some people will reject CDC information, but it’s still reliable.

    Between 1900 and 2000, the life expectancy for white men in the US increased by 28 years; for black men, by 35 years; for white women, by 31 years, and for black women, by 41 years.*

    I can’t speak for anyone else, but I can get a lot done in thirty years.

    *ETA: Improvements in medicine are not the sole reason for the increases.

  • Saraquill

    My mom is friends with an anti-vaxxer. She’s smug about keeping her daughter “pure” and insists herd immunity will keep her safe. We live in one of the major outbreak areas.

  • Arrgh! Right? Why do they put trust in the herd immunity as God’s providence and not that He will protect their children from the much lesser chance that they will suffer side effects from the vaccine?

  • SAO

    “Pure” from what? From anti-bodies? Does she think antibodies to measles is somehow “impure,” but antibodies to the flu, the common cold, rotaviruses, etc don’t count? When the kid gets measles, while she then be “impure” and what will that mean?

    This kind of bat-crap crazy thinking just boggles my mind. I might be mean enough to think it karma if the mother got measles, but the fact is that the daughter is likely to be the victim — the mother is probably vaccinated. (Does it make her feel “impure” to know that?)

  • Friend, you are fine. I appreciate your input and your kindness, too.

    Like so many things QF, this topic quickly becomes inceniary. It aims at the heart of a parent’s (usually a mother’s) idea about themselves as the most dutiful and loving parent, and the idea that they made a choice that put anyone in harm’s way hurts terribly. And from outside the subculture, people look into it and see not only a variant of chlid abuse in terms of measles, but of also saddling the larger community with the ill consequences. It puts the most vulnerable — the immunosuppressed — at the greatest risk, and Christians have long thought of themselves as their champions.

    I don’t take any of that personally, and I absolutely count on the fact that people read the comments, especially if the primary post offends them.

    If we can’t model how people can hash out the many elements of a hard topic, where can we do so? This is all a starting point, and I’m grateful that this cyber space endures to allow us to work out ideas and challenges together.

    Most people think of this subject as one that is black and white. I still contend that it has grey areas.

    Hepatitis can live in a dried dropplet of blood for two weeks, but the AIDS virus dies very quickly by comparison. Whooping cough and measles can (and will be) breathed in by young infants and children who are at the greatest risk of dying from an infection. Babies born in the hospital now usually receive the Hepatitis B vaccine on the day of their birth, and aside from mothers with the infection, what neonates face an exposure risk? I’d almost rather see that newborn vaccinated for Whooping Cough or Measles than Hep B! But that is not a straight black and whilte debate, either.

    If nothing more, we get a chance to demonstrate that the sky will not fall on us if we talk about the grey areas, illustrating that there is life on the other side of the black and white world of high demand religion. And it’s okay to change your position about something that you once believed in (such as my own version of centrism on the topic of immunizations).

    You and I are good!

  • Sadly, if (when) they do suffer infection in their homes, it will be defined as suffering for the cause, and the dead will become martyrs. My only hope is that those who now focus so much on the utilitarian ideas about side effects instead of the dated moral argument that they no longer recall will have cause to tell their kids to vaccinate their own children. They may think of themselves as martyrs who didn’t compromise on the abortion issue, but those outside of their bubble will see them as the problem that caused the mortality and morbidity suffered by our whole society.

  • SAO

    How does getting a vaccine-preventable disease = suffering for the cause? It certainly doesn’t convince the rest of us that their religion is something to be admired, quite the opposite, in fact.

  • They will do anything to support their confirmation bias and will reinterpret everthing including evidence to the contrary as proof that they made the right decision. They will say that they opposed abortion and died to help defend the unborn because it’s far more supportive than the very painful idea that their own decisions led to the predicament which can be deadly. And it’s not just deadly for their family, either. The guise of moral superiority provides far more comfort than reality.

  • Saraquill

    She’s a big fan of woo. I wouldn’t be surprised if she justifies her vaccinations with “cleansing” procedures.

  • Saraquill
  • Mimc

    Also interesting is that measles infections do so much damage to the immune system that they can cause immunity amnisia. So a person who has had chicken pox but then has measles will likely be vunerably to a second bout of chicken pox. That’s why the introduction of measles vaccines corisponds with a reduction in other infectious diseases.

  • “Pure” from toxic chemicals, I’d imagine. Some anti-vaxxers are absolutely crazy about that sort of thing.

  • They think “natural immunity” is somehow better. Yeah, I don’t get it either.

  • SAO

    There’s a lot of zombie ideas out there — ideas that have been thoroughly disproven, but the theory about the cause changes while the result doesn’t. As in vaccines cause autism because of mercury. Then when mercury was withdrawn from the vaccines, vaccines cause autism because of vaccine overload (like MMR being 3 vaccines given at once). When doctor promoting that idea lost his license because he had a big financial incentive to push single vaccines and the flaws in his study suggested his motivation was money, not science, the theory moved on.

    The GOP is full of zombie ideas. They never die, just the rationale changes.

  • Zeldacat

    What’s the point of “natural immunity” if you have to get the disease to acquire it? So they won’t get it TWICE? The whole point of vaccines is that you don’t have to get the disease at all in the first place.

    The lack of logic makes my head hurt. Time for more wine.

  • I’ve reviewed charts in physicians’ offices that show toddlers getting eight immunizations at once with the MMR counting as one of them, and that’s a three-fer.

  • therealcie

    How nice of her to let others bear the responsibility of providing herd immunity.