I remember the first time I got a sense that Amish might approach medicine a bit differently than the rest of us. I was selling books in Indiana. An Amish woman whom I met at the door casually mentioned that her children were battling whooping cough. “You’ve had your shots, right?” she asked. “Yes…I think?” One of the hazards of the job, I suppose.
Well, I didn’t come down with any diseases that time around. Though whooping cough, it turns out, can kill you, with around 5 out of 1,000 people dying from it, particularly infants.
But whooping cough, aka pertussis, is not common. Widespread vaccination has helped to knock its annual incidence down to a low level. Not everyone is getting those vaccinations, though, and Amish have long been an under-immunized population.
A recent study in Holmes County, Ohio tried to find out why. In turns out only 45% of Holmes County is fully immunized, vs. 80% statewide. Researchers mailed surveys to Holmes County households in general, meaning the study included some non-Amish as well. So the pure Amish number is likely even lower than 45%.
Reasons for vaccine refusal?
Forty-nine families refused all vaccines for their children, mostly because they worried the vaccines could cause harm and were not worth the risk.
Other common reasons included concerns that the shots have dangerous chemicals in them and that the diseases the vaccines protect against are not a problem in the community.
Just one out of the 49 totally unvaccinated families cited difficulty in getting to the doctor’s office, three said the shots are too expensive, and three of the parents agreed that “giving shots means I’m not putting faith in God to take care of my children.”
The vaccine situation ties into the point I was trying to make in yesterday’s post on Amish and e-taxes. I could see issues like this eroding public goodwill for the Amish. Especially if an outbreak of a dangerous disease occurs, as in the rare case of polio discovered in a Minnesota Amish community in 2005.
The argument over not putting faith in God factors into the equation but for a minority (though I think the number holding this belief in Holmes County would be higher than reported here, as conservative Amish who are more likely to share this view are also probably less likely to respond to a health survey).
Either way, the vaccination issue is only partially a religious one–and in most cases seems to be more about apprehension over ill effects, and the perceived necessity of the shots.
One of the study’s author writes: “Understanding separatist groups such as the Amish is crucial for prevention of disease epidemics, because underimmunized populations are proven reservoirs of serious infections.”
“Reservoirs of serious infections” doesn’t sound too cheery for anybody. Twenty states permit child immunization exemptions for religious or personal beliefs.
Should vaccines be legally required for certain dangerous diseases, no exceptions? Or is this treading too much on individual and religious liberties?
And, here’s a bit more on Amish and childhood vaccination.Looking for more good reading on the Amish? Check out our list of best Amish books.