Texas’ state epidemiologist reported this week that he has traced the origins of the outbreak, which first emerged about two weeks ago. After a man became sick with measles while traveling to Indonesia, he passed the infection to the other attendees at the megachurch — which repeatedly attracts over a thousand people each Sunday — when he returned home. Measles spread to the congregation, the staff, and a daycare center on church property.
Even though the Texas county where the church is located has an overall vaccination rate of about 98 percent, state officials note that Eagle Mountain International Church includes a “pocket” of people who aren’t vaccinated. The children who contracted measles there are homeschooled, so their parents haven’t been required by state law to get them their measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine. That’s likely because senior pastor Terri Pearsons has expressed unfounded skepticism about vaccines in the past, repeating the widely debunked conspiracy theory that they can lead to autism.
Pearsons is the oldest daughter of conservative televangelist Kenneth Copeland, who has also endorsed anti-vaccine myths. Eagle Mountain International Church is a division of Kenneth Copeland Ministries, which maintains a position on “faith healing” that encourages people to make up their own minds about vaccines rather than putting too much stock in the scientific community. “Kenneth Copeland Ministries’ position regarding dealing with any medical condition involving yourself or someone in your family is to first seek the wisdom of God, His Word, and appropriate medical attention from a professional that you know and trust,” a statement from the executive offices of the organization explains. “Apply wisdom and discernment in carrying out their recommendations for treatment. This would include: vaccinations, immunizations, surgeries, prescriptions, or any other medical procedures.”
Measles, which is so contagious that 90 percent of the unvaccinated people who are exposed to it will get sick, used to kill about 500 Americans each year. Now, advances in immunizations have virtually eradicated the once-common childhood disease. But health officials warn that unvaccinated pockets like Eagle Mountain International Church could allow the virus to come back.
“This is a classic example of how measles is being reintroduced,” William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, told USA Today. “This is a sadly misinformed religious leader.”
Since health officials first notified the megachurch about the measles outbreak in mid-August, they say church leaders have been very cooperative of their efforts to contain the virus. But Pearson has also continued to express her reservations about vaccines. “The concerns we have had are primarily with very young children who have family history of autism and with bundling too many immunizations at one time,” she said in a statement on August 15.
Since then, the church has since scheduled two vaccination clinics, and Pearson began urging congregants to get their shots. Pearson is also recommending that congregants take vitamin D to “fortify their immune systems,” even though there’s no scientific evidence that vitamins actually protect people against measles like a vaccination would.