Cover story published in 24 Hours Vancouver | March 31, 2014 | Circulation: 280,000+
“We’ve asked folks in the community to remain home so as not to spread it … but these are all recommendations, we are not enforcing anything at this point.” — Dr. Lisa Mu, Fraser Health
A measles outbreak has reached roughly 320 diagnosed cases this week, Fraser Health reported Monday, making it the worst of its kind in B.C. history.
Most of the cases have been confirmed amongst the Netherlands Reformed Congregation, including four members in Whatcom County, Wash.
But with the number of cases spreading, Fraser Health said it will respect the religious sect’s anti-vaccination views and simply isolate the members to prevent a regional measles epidemic.
The disease first flared up amongst children attending the Mount Cheam Christian School, a private school operated by the fundamentalist sect in Chilliwack, which opposes immunization on religious grounds.
“Vaccination is against their religious beliefs,” said Fraser Health medical health officer Dr. Lisa Mu. “In this instance we really do need to respect their beliefs.”
She said measles is “largely contained” to the congregation, and reflects the “hard work” of public health workers. Because there is no law mandating vaccination against disease, Fraser Health is working with the community to isolate carriers. While only one in 3,000 measles cases is fatal, other complications can include pneumonia, blindness, and brain damage or inflammation.
Cheam’s principal Jan Neels told 24 hours his school is set to re-open after an extended spring break, but the high rates of measles infection is not cause for worry — or reconsideration of the community’s anti-vaccination stance.
“I’m not concerned about that, I think people will follow the recommendations,” he said. “Same as at any other school, it’s parents’ choice whether to vaccinate or not — here, a lot choose not to.”
South of the border, Whatcom’s health officer Dr. Greg Stern said in cases when parents “say they’ll depend on their faith and not medication,” it raises many unresolved ethical and legal questions.
“People can make informed choices for themselves,” he said. “But when children are involved, and infants who can’t be vaccinated … it really pushes the question of when somebody’s religious beliefs allow others to be at risk — hopefully we can appeal to people’s sense of community to do the right thing.”