Unvaccinated Amish help create largest US measles outbreak in 20 years

Some Amish missionaries from Ohio decided to go to the Philippines to do some aid work after a recent devastating typhoon.

The missionaries’ parents didn’t bother vaccinating them as children.

Nor did the missionaries bother getting vaccinated as adults.

So they went to the Philippines and brought back a very special gift for the people of Ohio: A measles outbreak that’s become the worst in the US in nearly 20 years.

And you thought the Amish were only good at making furniture.

Amish woman via Shutterstock

Amish woman via Shutterstock

Our own Dr. Thoma wrote previously about the growing problem of resurgent diseases in the US due to the anti-vaccine movement — a kind of birther/truther movement that is convinced vaccines cause autism (they don’t).

Apparently the Amish have traditionally low vaccination rates among their children. (And why exactly is that tolerated by the local health department the state of Ohio?) But that’s no excuse for not being vaccinated as an adult, and for not getting your shots before you go on a trip to a foreign region that’s been devastated in a disaster, which often means disease takes hold. Anyone who does international work, especially relief work, knows about getting vaccinated.  Who organized this trip?  Who let these people go without checking on the health situation in the Philippines, and the vaccination status of the missionaries?

Keep in mind that these missionaries weren’t just posing a threat to Americans, they were posing a threat to the very people they were trying to help.  They could have passed the measeles on to the Filipinos they were working with, including children who are particularly at risk of complications from the disease.

I had no idea it was a “thing” among the Amish not to get vaccinated.  I hope the tourist industry is aware of this, including anyone doing business with the Amish.

Some of the unvaccinated missionaries told local health officials they’d have come in and gotten vaccinated before going on the trip had they known there was an outbreak.

“One guy we spoke to feels just terrible that he brought the measles back and exposed his family,” a local health official said.

Yeah, I bet he does.  Because, you know, this is probably the first time that guy has ever heard of the measles, or vaccinations at all.  So how could he be expected to know that viruses, and not a misalignment of the four humors, caused disease.  (I know a cat in California I’d like to introduce to this guy.)

If only there’d been some way that the Amish could have known before going to the Philippines, or at least before returning to America, that there was a measles problem over there.

November 23, 2013


January 6, 2014


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41 Responses to “Unvaccinated Amish help create largest US measles outbreak in 20 years”

  1. Deborah says:

    I’ve come across way too much information over the years about amish animal abuse. Just google: Ohio amish puppy mills — it’s a well documented fact that they abuse and kill dogs and horses. An interview from someone who had rescued hundreds of dogs near death from amish puppy mills said they have as much empathy for their dogs as they would have for a carrot. how’s that for a supposedly spiritual God fearing sect?

  2. GoBlue says:

    The Amish educate their children in Amish schools until they’ve earned the equivalent of an eighth-grade education. The teacher is usually an Amish adult. After that, children stay home and are taught farming and homemaking skills by their parents.

    The Amish think that education past the eighth grade will tempt their children to leave the Amish community. When school systems tried to force compulsory attendance laws, Amish parents sued for the right to be exempt. They fought all the way to the Supreme Court and won.

  3. Force Crater says:

    I’ve had measles twice. At my age now it would threaten my life. Damn these people to hell.

  4. Buford says:

    I’ll say it… Amish folks are just weird.

  5. NotConvinced says:

    Amish measles. Ewwwww.

  6. I had the measles in the summer of 1962, and I agree that it is better to have the vaccine. That vaccine came in 1966. In fact, Charles Schultz had a series on “Peanuts” in which Linus was afraid to get the vaccine, and Lucy reprimanded him.
    Still, I suppose I did receive much natural immunity from antibodies during my many years of being in the bar and store which my parents ran until I was 6. One can be too clean as well.

  7. Cetandi Bolger says:

    This is a Quote from :
    “The elderly Bishop informed me that actions and good deeds are very important and that the Amish do believe that they are a constant “witness” to God by the way they dress, provide assistance to those in need (both Amish and non-Amish) and the way they behave in all matters. That is, although they live their lives so as “to be pleasing to God” seven days a week in all aspects of their everyday lives, the Old Order Amish are not crusaders for the “word of God.” They are not out to “save” or “convert” the non-believer, especially a non-Amish individual. They do not hold revivals of any sort, do not send missionaries anywhere, do not seek to bring new members to the church outside their own children and do not go door to door passing out religious literature. Their Bible tells them to be concerned about their own salvation and, “..to take care of those of your own house… ” (I Timothy 5:8) both spiritually and physically. In addition, as opposed to other fundamentalist groups, an Amish person will never verbally state, “I am saved,” since only God can know and make that judgement. But, they do view themselves as “a congregation of the righteous. ” (Titus 2:14).” I am curious to find out if this is correct information…. if it is, then why were ther so called Amish “missionaries ” in the Philippines in the first place?

  8. silas1898 says:

    Thanks. That makes it all more clear.

  9. Duke Woolworth says:

    If the Amish were active in the outside world, they could have an all-Amish government in Holmes County, Ohio. But they’re not. They quit (their own) school at 14. Their bishops decide almost everything for their individual churches, such as whether a bicycle is a banned mechanical conveyance or okay to ride. Many don’t know that Switzerland has French and Italian regions, only German, where the original 400 families were driven out of. Because of inbreeding, they have a high incidence of congenital defects, which they take care of themselves. They are pacifists. The married men wear beards but no mustaches, which Swiss officers wore.
    There’s so much more. Do a little research.

  10. Lynne Stevens says:

    I’m sure there are some interesting discussions going on in the Amish community right now.

  11. pappyvet says:

    I understand what you are saying Prof, but I do wonder if the idea of vaccines is unknown to them or if they are not vaccinated by religious choice.
    If we missed them shame on us. If they chose to be missed it’s a different matter.
    If you want to handle that rattlesnake fine. Just don’t do it in my house.

  12. ANB2013 says:

    I wrote about vaccines, autism, and the Amish a few years ago.

    The Anabaptists don’t specifically proscribe vaccines, and many Amish and Mennonite communities do vaccinate in numbers approaching what is found in the general population. The largest Amish population in the US, found in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, is served by the Clinic for Special Children in Strasburg, PA, and the clinic holds regular, well-attended vaccine clinics. One of the many false talking-points of the anti-vaccine movement is that the Amish don’t vaccinate and that autism is rare in those communities. But many communities do vaccinate, and autism is still found in those areas, but not necessarily diagnosed.

    On a side note, there is notorious inbreeding among the Amish, leading to rare genetic disorders rarely seen in the general population. See Maple Syrup Urine disease.

  13. ottnott says:

    Thanks for being willing to consider another point of view.

    What you had in mind was more like the Mormon (and other authorative religions) model, where certain principles and practices are divinely ordained until they are inconvenient and must be divinely abolished or modified.

  14. The_Fixer says:

    Thanks to Kenster99, ottnott and DanF for clarifying this. I was misinformed about the motivation for eschewing modern technology in certain circumstances.

    I think it is desirable for people to control access to technology in family settings and in their personal lives. However, I think that they carry it to a point of extremity.

    Although they are perfectly free to conduct their lives in the manner they have chosen, this episode illustrates the perils of living the way that they do.

  15. DanF says:

    Right. And how the technology impacts jobs in the community is very important. You can’t drive a car because it puts the person who makes buggies out of a job. As well as as the blacksmith who shoes your horses and the people who provide leather for the harness, and so on. It’s not a bad philosophy in that regard. We may need to embrace it to some degree in the not to distant future when all of our semi-skilled jobs are replaced by our robot overlords.

  16. Duck says:


  17. caphillprof says:

    Our social organization has often been on thoughtful. We provided marriage for only some couples not for all. We mandated health inoculations through the schools and not by the state. By doing so we missed the Amish. I wonder if we had Universal Health care whether we would have missed the Amish.

    Ironically many of the foodies and the greens are advocating that we all lead lives more like the Amish. In the absence of alternative energies the Amish way of life is the only truly sustainable agriculture.

  18. caphillprof says:

    The Amish are a religious sect that has existed for hundreds of years. They predate the United States. They are primarily a religious community of farmers, although in more recent times they have expanded to include small businesses–woodworking, cheese making, other crafts. They are more Akin to monks and nuns than they are to Lutherans, Methodists and Baptists.

    150 years ago my ancestors would have been almost indistinguishable from the Amish. My ancestors however moved with the times and now several generations later their descendants are mostly not religious. Like a monastery or a convent the Amish community has put community over changing technology. I think there is also an economic dimension to their communal decisions regarding technology. Without petroleum powered tractors and combines they can survive economically on smaller acreage. This in turn puts them within a horse or buggy ride of their fellows, thus obviating any need for automobiles

    Throughout the 20th century the Amish were at the cutting edge of the separation of church and state. The primary battlefield was compulsory education. Generally they are schooled to the sixth or eighth grade which was pretty much the norm for Americans in the 19th century.

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  20. Lyram says:

    It must’ve taken a long time to get there via sailing ship! How hypocritical they get their pick of which forbidden technology to use, and opt for convenience (air travel) over the safety of others, vaccines.

  21. Straightnotnarrow says:

    The Mennonites are very similar in their lack of immunization. I had the distinct displeasure of watching a 14 yo girl die from tetanus in our ICU as a resident. It was horrible watching someone in the flower of youth die from a preventable disease.
    Given the fact that the state has to respond to these outbreaks (i.e. provide resources, treatment, etc), the state has an interest in mitigating the impact of such outbreaks. It therefore behooves the state to step in and vaccinate these kids to limit the damage.

  22. Kenster999 says:

    My understanding is that they tend to avoid technology when it keeps people separate from others. For example, they don’t usually use phones because they think you build stronger personal relationships if you need to walk over to talk to someone in person rather than just speak over the phone. But there’s a phone available in case they need to call 911.

  23. ottnott says:

    You misunderstand.

    Their concern is not based on the perceived evil of specific technologies or devices, but on the potential impact on their homes and communities.

    The phone in a shed in the back yard is not there because the phone is evil, but because it is less of a temptation and disruption when it is not in the house.

    Similarly, riding in an automobile when making a trip that isn’t practical by other means has much less impact on a family than owning (and, therefore, driving) one.

    Non-Amish parents make similar decisions for their own families. Consider the impact of a TV in a child’s room versus a TV kept unplugged in a corner of the living room, for example.

  24. The_Fixer says:

    There are a few things that I do not understand about the Amish.

    They don’t drive cars, but will ride in them. Now, what’s the difference? You’re still utilizing a modern convenience. It’s not a cabin that is magically moved without human intervention.

    I had heard about the cellphones being relegated to the outhouse. It’s something about not having corrupting influences in the home, if I understand it correctly. If cellphones are so evil, why does one have anything to do with them at all?

    Why no electricity in the home, yet allow it to be used as a tool in fabrication, distribution and marketing of their products?

    And then there are the genetic problems resulting in diseases due to intermarrying within their clans. Yet they will accept help from outside doctors who have been trained in modern medicine.

    To me, this is just like any other sect of Christianity – they selectively choose what to believe in their grand book, and bend their own rules as convenience dictates. Like a lot of extreme religious sects, they shun those who break a rather arbitrary set of rules, or those children who decide to enter the real world after their Rumspringa.

    And in an odd way, it appears to me that they are benefiting from modern life in spite of living the lifestyle of the Puritans. Kind of hypocritical, if you ask me.

  25. silas1898 says:

    There are many separate Amish communities. They each decide for themselves how and what kind of technology to use.

    Riding in a car or plane doesn’t seem to be a problem, since they are not driving it. Some will have phones, but in a shack in the back yard. Some are members of the community, but not fully baptized in the church, so some rules bend easier. Lots of hidden cell phones.

    I shop at an indoor Amish market. They are traditionally dressed, but wear sneakers and happily take Visa.

  26. PeteWa says:

    I understand the greater issue, I’m just still surprised that it would extend to those who want to leave and then reenter the US as little germ factories.
    Not sure why anything surprises my anymore, but I’m still a little mindblown.

  27. BeccaM says:

    It’s been due to the rise of ‘religious and personal conscience’ legislation advanced by fundamentalists and their hyper-conservative allies in federal, state, and local governments. The same rules which would’ve gotten us sent home from school as kids for failing to produce a vaccination record have been watered down, nullified, and obliterated — just so selfish gits can mooch off the herd immunity of others.

  28. BeccaM says:

    That is, of course, totally different. Those who medically cannot risk vaccinations have every right to depend on the ‘herd immunity’ from the rest of us.

    Those who simply choose not to? Or who do so for religious, personal, unscientific and/or irrational* reasons? No.

    (* = I’m aware those four reasons are often one and the same.)

  29. PeteWa says:

    How did they get back and forth to the Philippines? Quite a long swim for the poor horses.
    Very strange to me that they were allowed to go there without being vaccinated first, and return since they skipped the vaccinations.
    At least when I was a kid, you had no choice in the matter… maybe it was just my parents, but I thought it was actually the government who required us to get various vaccines before going there – maybe it was just a military thing?

  30. mirror says:

    Well, we do have a federal government agency to provide just this kind of information to travelers. The Center for Disease Control, however much the GOP wants to eliminate it. It has recommendations specific to the country you are traveling to and why you are traveling, including category “Mission/Disaster Relief” for the Philippines, which, of course, says that all travelers to the Philippines should be up to date with their measles vaccinations, among others.


  31. Duck says:

    I am not terribly familiar with the Amish beyond the famous religious aversion to modern technology like electricity and indoor plumbing. Can anyone tell me if that aversion to modern technology and convenience applies to things like health care (I know that there are other religious sects that do not accept blood transfusions or surgeries – we hear about those groups periodically as their kids die from completely treatable things like infections or appendicitis) and air travel? If there is a religious aversion to modern health care is it a surprise that the missionaries didn’t get vaccinated? If there is a religious aversion to air travel how did they get there? Given that the typhoon was late in the calendar year (based on John’s first screen cap) and they are all ready back to spread the disease at home, I assume that some form of modern travel was conducted given the 7300 odd miles from the West Coast to Manila. I mean it is 8300 or so miles from Columbus to Manila, being rather generous with land travel (30 miles per day is pretty good for walking/horse buggy travel) and sea travel (10 knots/11 mph) it would take about 4 months round trip so a return leg of about 2 months – I am not completely sure but a 60 day period should be long enough to cover the infectious period for exposure prior to leaving the country (so it should have run its course by the time one reaches ones destination assuming no modern conveyance was used).

  32. tamarz says:

    I have no sympathy for the anti-vaxxers either (though it’s pretty hard on their kids).
    But there are people who have real medical contraindications to vaccines or are immuno-compromised or whose immune levels from their original vaccine may have dropped over time so they no longer have immunity to the disease. That’s why herd immunity is so important — to protect vulnerable people and the unlucky who got a vaccine that for some reason didn’t take. (which makes the anti-vaxxers morally liable when vulnerable people contract these diseases).

  33. tamarz says:

    Re: why the health department isn’t more involved.
    Government agencies don’t impose immunization requirements on adults (except for certain professions). School attendance usually requires some level of vaccination for children. However, each state has its own rules regarding school attendance and vaccination. I don’t know whether the Amish attend school or are considered home-schooled (which might not have the same requirement). But it almost doesn’t matter what their school situation is because Ohio’s vaccine requirement is virtually non-existent.

    “Quick Fact: A pupil who presents a written statement of the pupil’s parent or guardian in which the parent or guardian declines to have the pupil immunized for reasons of conscience, including religious convictions, is not required to be immunized. Medical exemptions are also allowed.”
    That exemption means that any child can be exempted from vaccine requirements for just about any reason.

  34. docsterx says:

    My questions are that if the Amish are so receptive to getting vaccinated now, why weren’t they vaccinated as children and why didn’t they let their children get vaccinated? Why wasn’t the local county health department more proactive in getting information on vaccinations, and the vaccines, to the Amish directly? I believe that Ohio and Pennsylvania have the largest populations of Amish in the US. Are other county health departments in these states now targeting the Amish with information on vaccinations and promoting vaccinations? If not, the outbreak could easily spread. Perhaps someone in government needs to take a look at the health departments to see if they were remiss in getting the Amish vaccinated. Possibly, they could have prevented the outbreak.

  35. dcinsider says:

    Of course, the outbreak needed other non-vaccinated people, right? I assume it was an outbreak outside of the Amish community?

    If so, that means the idiots who fear vaccinating their kids because it may result in autism are the real problem. A lot of kids are not getting vaccinated because of these morons and their absurd theories about vaccination and illnesses, led by the Michelle Bachmann’s and other dim fobs.

  36. cole3244 says:

    religious ignorance strikes again.

  37. BeccaM says:

    The impulse to go help is admirable. But yes, the decision not to take care to protect the health of others is well described as ‘hubris and stupidity.’ And I would also add ‘selfish.’

    As you said in the post, the lack of vaccinations could have resulted in the Amish missionaries infecting the very people they claimed to want to help. Plus, going into a typhoon-devastated area, it’s foolish not to assume one of the obvious results will be diseases running rampant — and thus putting everyone back home at risk upon return.

  38. bkmn says:

    It sounds a lot like the Boko Haram crew that fights against Western education (especially for females) but I’m willing to bet they use modern communication equipment like cell phones.

  39. Of course. How hard is it to say “hmm, I’m going to a developing-ish country that’s just been devastated by a typhoon, disease will likely be rampant, maybe I should ask someone whether I need any vaccinations?” Of course, it’s worse than that – whoever organized the trip must have known about vaccinations, and the need to check beforehand, as they must organize these things all the time, you’d think. AND, it’s no like it’s news that measles is a problem everywhere and every child and adult should be vaccinated, period. So many levels of hubris and stupidity in this story.

  40. BeccaM says:

    This is what invariably happens when religious beliefs are permitted to trump science, yet the ‘true believers’ continue to take advantage of the discoveries, benefits, and opportunities that only happened due to scientific discovery.

    People putting others in danger for what are essentially selfish, irrational reasons.

  41. Indigo says:

    They wouldn’t have known because they don’t follow the modern media closely but they should have thought to inquire about precautions before they went. Regardless, the old Vietnamese Buddhist saying applies: “No good deed goes unpunished.”

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