Many Amish Breaking Tradition, Getting Measles Vaccine

Jun 17, 2014

Nurse Jacqueline Fletcher prepares an Amish boy to be vaccinated against measles.
Nurse Jacqueline Fletcher prepares an Amish boy to be vaccinated against measles.
Credit San Hendren / WOSU News

The Knox County village of Danville calls itself the gateway to Amish country.  It’s here that the county health department has set up a makeshift clinic.  It’s attracting dozens of families who come in to be vaccinated against measles.

In a handful of central Ohio counties, public health officials are traveling back roads and setting up these clinics in churches and town halls.  They’re trying to contain a measles outbreak among the mostly unvaccinated Amish community.

Traditionally, the Amish avoid vaccinations.  But now they see the toll that measles is taking on their tight-knit communities.  Knox County Health spokeswoman Pam Palm says fear of measles brings more than a hundred people to the Danville clinic on a recent Thursday afternoon.

"A lot of them don’t get immunized because of their holistic way of living," says Palm. "But they’re seeing the numbers of people who are getting sick and they are seeing how sick they are getting so they are coming in to get immunized."

The mobile clinics are critical to widespread vaccinations.  Nurse Jacqueline Fletcher says the clinics make for shorter and safer travel on narrow county roads.

"Due to the outbreak and the fact that the Amish normally travel by buggy, it’s far easier for us to bring the vaccine out to them than to have them travel to us."

Fletcher says health workers also go door-to-door looking for measles cases, sometimes finding whole families who have fallen ill. 

"As soon as we saw these folks, they were just covered in a measles rash, they were sitting in a darkened room because it affects your eyes," says Fletcher.  "Your eyes feel very gritty and red and bothered by the light so they tend to sit in the dark.  They have high temperatures 102, 103, we’ve seen them as high as 104.5, aches, pains."

The outbreak began in late March after several Amish men returned from a trip overseas.  They had gone to the Philippines unvaccinated to do disaster relief work. Once back in Ohio, the first cases arose.  State epidemiologist Mary DiOrio says the Ohio Department of Health is supplying vaccine to affected counties in hopes of controlling the spread of the highly contagious disease.

"We’re working with them to make sure they get the vaccine they need to run these clinics.  So it’s a lot of work that the local health departments have to do and we’re providing support to them as we can," says DiOrio.

More than 8-thousand people have been vaccinated at the clinics, a sign that attitudes among the Amish are changing.  Aden Weaver is an Amish father of 12 who believes taking the vaccine is worthwhile.

"Absolutely, I really do [think the vaccine is important]," says Weaver.  "I just think that it helps everybody to stay away from getting sick.  That’s the way I feel about it.  I think it would be beneficial if everybody would do it, really."

Clearly the fight against the disease is not over.  But Jacqueline Fletcher believes health workers have made significant progress. 

"We’re trying to contain this outbreak.  The idea is to get ahead of this disease get it confined and keep it confined and so far we have kept it confined to the Amish community."

Knox County has the most confirmed cases of measles, more than half of all the cases in Ohio.  Four surrounding counties also report large outbreaks.  Health officials are uncertain whether they’ve contained the outbreak.