Why Amish vaccinate less

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.

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    1. Lance

      “treading too much on individual and religious liberties” gets my vote, as I am sure some of you might expect by now.

    2. Unknown as not enough studies done on populations that do not get vaccines

      With regard to the Amish that do not vaccinate, do you think children have a lesser degree of problems that people often connect to vaccines, like learning problems and autism?
      Also is the infant mortality rate different?
      I generally think vaccines are good, but I also believe in science and would like to see studies on populations that are not vaccinated.

    3. I am a strong supporter of vaccinations but I do not think they should be mandatory. I have had wooping cough because when I was an infant there was no good vaccine available and therefore it was not part of the program.

    4. Other reasons for foregoing immunization

      This is anecdotal, of course, but of the many families i know that do not immunize (mostly outside the Old Order communities), none has reported an infant or child lost or seriously injured because they refused immunization. Nutrition and sanitation levels are much higher than even 50 years ago, and this has prevented severe illness in many cases. Also, parents with unimmunized children always seem to accept antibiotics and other medications to fight infection when it does occur. Acknowledging that there will always be a segment of the population unimmunized for some reason, including that the immunization would not be recommended for some people,the fact that most of the population has received protection against common illnesses prevents widespread contagion from a small group. I myself was never immunized for smallpox because of a childhood allergy to the medium in which the formula was cultured,and other people have to delay or forego immunizations for the same reason. The danger of an unimmunized population group may be exaggerated.

    5. Al in Ky.

      I can see how an outbreak among the Amish of a preventable disease
      that threatens the larger community would likely create negative
      feelings about the Amish. Yet there may be things about health
      care that we can learn from the Amish. I’m thinking of things
      like using burdock leaves and B & W salve to treat burns. It
      seems like this is widely used among many Amish communities and
      is reportedly very effective. I’ve occasionally read articles
      in The Budget during the past couple of years where a few in
      the professional medical community are studying this treatment
      and thinking about possibilities of using it as an alternate
      treatment in clinics, hospitals, etc. It will be interesting
      to see how this develops.

    6. The manditory immunization of children is “treading too much on individual liberties”. There are too many side effects.
      Too many immunizations are bundled into one shot for the little ones to handle thus causing serious side effects. I have 2 grand daughters that have been seriously hurt by the immunizations. It makes me quite angry when there is discussion of this topic as I have seen what happens to the health of our little ones. Keeping a persons immune system functioning properly and having the proper nutrition in your daily diet and proper sanitary care will prevent most diseases. Blessings as you enjoy your day. Click on my name to see what we do to take care of ourselves. It works.

    7. Alice Aber


      I do not believe the vaccinations should be mandatory for any reason. There are many reasons for not being vaccinated. For me personally my already compromised immune system from chronic fatigue syndrome would be affected even more in a negative way. Bad side effects, religion or faith structure, non tolerance to conventional medicines are all good reasons not to be immunized.

      Also it seems the more we give shots for this thing or that the sicker people seem to be getting. Or the more strains of a particular virus seems to be able to combat the vaccinations thereby rending them useless. I think it should be a personal choice based on each individual rather than something that is forced on them.

      Blessings, Alice

    8. Stephen B.

      Hmmmm… Why not require medication for kids that have severe ADHD? These kids get into a public classroom setting and destroy the learning experience for everybody else. Drug them up I say!

      Why not require people to eat their veggies? What about outlawing smoking and going back to alcohol Prohibition too?

      We already require seat belt use in most states and MA requires one have health insurance (soon to come to the rest of the USA), so that’s already covered.

      Heck, why not pass a law for EVERYTHING we can think of and have either a subsidy for everything govt. deems that is good and a fine or other penalty for everything that is bad?

      I think that our society’s love and embrace of everything that is government has gone way too far already and going further by requiring us to take hypodermic needles to our skin and inject whatever potion the government says is good for us is yet another amazing step forward in this direction.

      Orwell wasn’t wrong – he was just a bit early. 🙂

    9. Marilyn in New York

      When I was a child in the 1950’s I had all the shots that I was suppose to for go to school. Since then there are a lot more. Also, I am allergic to many medicines sucn as flu shots, the new polio shots and much more. There was a time when I thought that all children should have shots when entering school, but after all the reactions I have had to some medicines I have changed my thinking. I don’t think any parent should be forced into getting these shots for their children. You never know what kind of reaction they will get to the shots. There have been a few times I have landed in hospital emergencies because of reaction I had do to a shot or pill a doctor gave me. If it happened to me as an adult, I hate to think of what it could do to some young child.
      Marilyn in New York

    10. Richard

      A tough topic because there may not be a right answer . In my gut though id say if something is highly contagious to the general population then yes everyone really should receive medication either in pill form or a shot. If there is a medical reason why someone can not receive a particular vaccine because of a medical condition or possible reaction then that would need to be taken under consideration as well. But when possible if something is highly contagious and extremely serous then they should be given medicine to stop the spread of infection. Richard from Amish Stories.

    11. Richard

      Just to remind everyone Jeans post is brand new today on Amish Stories.In this post Jean and family take-in a foster teen for a brief stay with this old order Mennonite family. And explains how he is getting along in a horse and buggy world. Richard from Amish Stories.

    12. Lindsay

      I see it both ways. My dad is a teacher, and he fears an outbreak of a dormant disease in one of his classrooms. Especially with very small kids, some of these diseases are quite deadly. For example, recently there was an outbreak of measles in Minnesota:


      On the same token, I’ve felt (this is not a scientific opinion) that being over antiseptic in our culture has probably led to more illness. I don’t think kids get the opportunity to build immunities like they have in the past, therefore when they do encounter a super bug they have a harder time fighting it.

      The reason diseases like smallpox got eradicated was because almost everyone got on board with immunization over a period of many decades. We’re not going to get there with some of these other immunizable diseases if we don’t get on board for everyone’s good.

      I don’t like having a government mandate on anything, but I’d like to see more encouragement and/or education on a more local level to try to get as many people onboard with eradicating deadly diseases as possible.

      What’s wrong with the government saying to eat your veggies 😉 You should be eating them!

    13. My rights vs. yours

      I lean to the live and let live side of the argument, but there is also the question of where do my rights end and yours begin.

      Stephen to take one of your examples we don’t force disruptive students to take behavior-altering drugs, but we certainly remove them from classroom settings where they damage other students’ experience (ie, a trip to the principal’s office) and attempt to alter that behavior through punishment and other means (detention, suspension, parent conferences).

      There is also the idea of a publicly shared good. I would not infringe on another person’s right to smoke. But as soon as your smoke drifts into my home, pollutes my air, and stinks up my clothes, I believe you are treading on my well-being and creating costs for me (ie by damaging my property, possibly my health, and destroying a public good, air).

      Is an environment free of manageable diseases (or the closest approximation to that) different? Maybe it is. I think part of the problem is that vaccination involves actively introducing a substance into a person’s body, rather than banning or restricting an activity.

    14. Tamara

      There’s a bit of a trust issue, too. Stories of contaminated vaccines/medications, inactivated (ineffective) lots, and then, of course, their link to sudden death and autism. Sometimes Science goes “Oops,” and the American public realizes that – the same American public that puts their FAITH in Science and Medicine. It’s no wonder the Amish are harder to convince. Their faith in medicine is weak, and they are very aware of the “medicine gone bad” stories, too.

      It’s good that they agreed to have the community vaccinated against Polio. That vaccine has been so successful over the years.

      I am glad we have the choice, but I feel bad for those parents who wish they could vaccinate their child against dangerous diseases, but cannot due to allergy or compromised immunity. Then they have to send their child out into the world with healthy, unvaccinated children who could be transmitting something deadly to their weaker child. It almost seems like it’s a duty to vaccinate healthy children. (I work at a large children’s hospital – maybe my point of view is skewed.)

    15. Leo

      Adverse reactions to Vaccines

      Any time you get a vaccine, even if it a simple flu shot, there is a risk of having a reaction.
      The Federal Government has a mechanism in place to report such reactions: The Vaccine Adverse Reaction Reporting System at http://vaers.hhs.gov/index.
      There is also a Federal compensation program for those who have had adverse reactions and for the parents or spouse of someone who has died as a result of receiving a vaccine: the Office of Special Masters of the U.S. Court of Federal Claims. This is a no-fault system for settling vaccine injury claims, which are heard in the Court of Claims, sitting without a jury. The website for this is http://www.uscfc.uscourts.gov/vaccine-programoffice-special-masters. There are many cases of vaccine injuries listed on this website. Some are the deaths of infants who have received the usual childhood immunizations. I would never advise anyone not to receive immunizations, or to not have their children vaccinated. But please be aware that there are risks involved.

    16. Debbie Welsh

      It took scientist from all over the world many long, hard years to finally come up with the vaccines to eradicate such deadly and debilitating diseases as smallpox, diphtheria, polio, etc., and thank God for that, as it is God who gave man the brains to figure out such complicated things in order to help mankind. He also gave us common sense, along with free will, so that we can make our own decisions based, hopefully, on logic and facts.

      I have to agree with Richard, Lindsay, and Tamara here. When it comes to eradicating deadly diseases, it is for the common good of all that we get vaccinated, unless you have a special medical reason not to, like being allergic or having a compromised immune system. There are always risk, but I believe the good outweighs them in this instance.

    17. Richard

      An interesting topic today, and not a very easy one in coming up with a solution. Richard from Pennsylvania.

    18. Karen Pollard


      I agree with everything Debbie is saying.

      Research has shown there is NO connection between vaccines and autism. I taught for 28 years and encountered several families, primarily chiropractor’s children who were not vaccinated.
      I don’t think it should be government mandated, however. I think for the good of all, children should be vaccinated.

      I also agree that God gave us the intelligence and opportunity to eradicate many of the dreaded childhood diseases that killed thousands of children in the past. In my opinion, to not do so, is being ignorant of what is best for all children.

      Not being able to afford the vaccine is not a credible excuse either. The local health department provides these vaccines either for free or based on your ability to pay.

      I always felt it was unfair of a few to endanger the lives of many.

    19. Ed

      One aspect of Amish life that scares me is the approach to medical care. Open up The Budget and one finds a slew of herbal cures and remedies being advertised but little unbiased medical advice.

      The Amish are a practical people by nature so it does surpirse me that so many forgo the benefits of vaccination. Perhaps, better health education and consumer knowledge are what is needed here. For example, the anti-vaccination advocates have an obvious financial incentive when they push to sell their books and herbal cures on customers. In contrast, a legitimate doctor reaps no financial benefit whatsoever when he prescribes a legitimate medicine.

      While I don’t think anyone should be FORCED to vaccinate, at the same time we must acknowledge there is almost no reason not to vaccinate and expose those unscrupulous persons who make self-serving claims that vaccinations are dangerous or don’t work.

    20. In thinking over this topic, I realize that asmost all the people I know who do not vaccinate are Seventh-Day Adventist, Christian Scientist, or from the LDS. I am not convinced that some of the new vaccines are necessary or efficacious. I also use herbal therapies before going to a doctor, and I rarely have to see a doctor except for acute and dangerous illnesses related to my allergies to penicillin and some common household chemicals.

    21. Matt from CT

      >I can see how an outbreak among the Amish of a preventable disease
      >that threatens the larger community would likely create negative
      >feelings about the Amish.

      The Achille’s heel of the public safety/reservoir of infection concerns is…

      …if almost everyone else is immunized, whose going to get sick?

      You could make an argument for mandatory immunization during absolute erradication campaigns, such as we did with Smallpox and the current efforts with Polio (I think that’s one.)

      Ok, so maybe the Amish go to Walmart, but we’re not talking about a group that generally interacts with a wide variety of people frequently. One room school houses, much of their socialization is within their families / community, most of their travel is within human or horse powered range.

      It’s not a group that concerns me. Other religious sects and secular lemmings (I’m looking at you, Jenny McCarthy) that are fully integrated in modern society except for beliefs against vaccinations concerns me.

      The town I went to high school in was settled in 1686, a remarkably early date for and inland hill town in New England. Most settlements were still along the coastal plains, the Connecticut River Valley, or a few of the broad, meandering rivers on the plains east of Boston.

      Looking in the cemetery, many of the first generation of settlers lived into their 80s, 90s, and 100s — the explanation being they were such an arduous journey from seaports most folks with communicable diseases like smallpox would die before they could travel that far inland.

      Isolation and interaction are and always have been important factors in disease management.

      While not as dramatic as the lifetimes of those early settlers in Woodstock, overall America’s life expectancy dropped after the Revolutionary War due to more widespread diseases — first spread by marching armies, and then kept spreading by the greater amount of travel and commerce after the war.

      Northern life expectancy (there were fewer diseases then the warmer south) was 50 in 1700, 40 in 1750, and down to 36 by 1800!

    22. Disease mutations?


      “The Achille’s heel of the public safety/reservoir of infection concerns is…

      …if almost everyone else is immunized, whose going to get sick?”

      That seems like a good point. But what about mutations of diseases? Ie, a population that could harbor a disease could allow a mutated form to develop that is resistant to existing vaccines. Maybe that’s not a realistic concern. I am not well-versed enough in this to say. But it wonders me.

      The colonial cemetery anecdote you shared is fascinating. Did not realize that about this hardy first generation.

    23. Dean Luurtsema

      Why Amish vaccinate less

      Although non-amish, i agree that mandatory vaccinations are definitely stomping on religious and individual freedoms. I too have moral and religious troubles with many vaccines, as they are being manufactured using cell lines derived from babies who were intentionally killed en utero. This includes the “COVID” vaccines, dubious as they may be.