When it comes to medical advice, most people turn to their doctor. But in some places, it’s the religious leader whose words resonate. In one North Texas community, parishioners followed guidance from pastors who said to turn to faith before medicine. And this month, more than twenty of them became sick with the measles.
The measles outbreak began an hour and a half northwest of Dallas at Eagle Mountain International Church. It’s a large suburban property, with what looks like a school building at the center. A man who got the measles in Indonesia visited the church and infected more than twenty people.
Earlier this week crowds flooded in for regular services. Rose Mwangi had her bible in hand, and wasn’t worried.
“’Cause I know Jesus is a healer, so I know he’s covered us with the blood, there’s no place for fear,” she said.
Eagle Mountain is led by pastor Terri Copeland Pearsons – the daughter of televangelist Kenneth Copeland. She’s the mother of the church, and preaches to thousands from a stage with a midnight blue backdrop.
The church leaders wouldn’t grant interviews, but Pearsons released a statement after the outbreak saying she isn’t anti-vaccine – and even set up vaccination clinics on the property. But at the same time, when she preaches to her congregates the message is put your faith in God.
“So I’m going to tell you what the facts are and the facts are the facts but then we know the truth, that always overcomes facts,” she said right after the outbreak began, at the August 14th service.
Pearsons father, Kenneth Copeland, has built a vast ministry with international reach. He’s also spoken against vaccines in the past.
Here’s Kenneth Copeland speaking in 2010 (the talk of vaccines begins about 20:00 minutes in):
Most of the Eagle Mountain parishioners who came down with measles had never been vaccinated.
“This is a good example, unfortunately, of how birds of a feather flock together,” says Dr. Jason Terk. He’s a pediatrician and infectious disease specialist in North Texas.
“If you have individuals who are vaccine hesitant or hostile they congregate together and that creates the situation where they are susceptible to getting the disease they want to protect themselves from.”
Measles is one of the most contagious diseases. Its airborne — all you have to do is share space with someone who’s sick and you’ll likely get sick too. And for every 1,000 children it infects, one or two die.
A vaccine exists that is extremely effective. After it was introduced in the 1960s it transformed our society from one where pretty much everyone got the red rash, to one where most modern doctors have never even seen a case of the measles.
In the last few years, though, more people have chosen not to vaccinate their children. Dr. Paul Offitt, one of the country’s leading vaccine researchers at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, says that decision is made on bad information.
“Typically, it is the fear that the combination measles-mumps-rubella or MMR vaccine may have in some way contributed to the epidemic of autism which has clearly been shown not to be true in study after study,” he says.
And while it may seem like a personal decision whether or not to get the vaccine, Offit says it’s a choice with serious ripple effects. There are hundreds of thousands of people in the U.S. who can’t get vaccines because they’re undergoing medical treatment or are too young.
“They depend on those around them to be vaccinated,” Offit says. “And when you make the decision it is a selfish ill-founded choice and it can only hurt you or those who come in contact with you.”
So far this year, the CDC reports the U.S. has had more than twice as many measles cases than in 2012, when there were only 55. Physicians like Paul Offit warn that when people with power preach against vaccines – their message can spread just like the disease.