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Whooping Cough Outbreak Claims Infant, But Amish Resist Vaccination

November 23, 1988

CONEWANGO, N.Y. (AP) _ An outbreak of whooping cough has claimed the life of one infant in western New York’s Amish community but has done little to break down the conservative Christian group’s resistance to inoculation.

During the past three weeks, the number of confirmed cases of the disease, which federal records indicate is fatal in eight of 1,000 cases among infants under age 6 months, has risen from six to 33. A 3-month-old infant died Oct. 31.

The outbreak, the second this decade in the community, has health officials worried about the rest of the 1,200 to 1,500 Amish who live in an area about 70 miles south of Buffalo. A vaccine has nearly eliminated whooping cough in the nation’s general population, but most of the Amish avoid vaccinations and other conventional medical treatments.

″It’s a very large concern,″ said Mary Anne Power, Cattaraugus County supervising public health nurse. ″Any public health official would be concerned about an epidemic in such a large non-vaccinated community.″

Power said she is afraid ″the peak of the epidemic hasn’t occurred yet.″

The disease hasn’t reached Neil Hershberger, 26, or his wife and three children, but like most Amish here, he’s in no hurry to have his children vaccinated.

Instead, he said, ″We would keep them (the children) away from people that have it.″

That philosophy echoes the general stance the ″Plain Folk″ take toward the non-Amish population, whom they refer to as ″the English.″

A group formed in the 17th century as an offshoot of the Mennonites, the Amish are known for their severely plain clothing and avoidance of modern conveniences like electricity, telephones and motorized vehicles. They subsist by farming, producing lumber and selling homemade goods such as quilts, baked goods and cheese.

Although friendly and willing to speak, most don’t want their names used, out of modesty.

″Their outlook is ’I’m a member of the community and I’ll talk, but I shouldn’t be boastful or proud,‴ explained Lee Zook, an Amish expert and professor at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa.

Whooping cough, or pertussis, is a regular occurrence in the community. In 1982, there were 216 reported cases, but no deaths.

All of the Amish interviewed said they remembered having the disease as children, and since they survived, many don’t believe it is dangerous. Their comments also reflected the community’s general belief in the virtue of self- sufficiency and faith in the power of God.

″I had it. I was only a couple of months old,″ said one young Amish man with a fiery red beard who, along with eight of his friends, was building a home on property he’d just bought. ″It wasn’t that bad for me, the way my mother told me. I took some homemade remedies. I don’t know what it was.

″In a way, I kind of feel if a child is supposed to die, why don’t it die?″

Another man said of inoculation, ″The way the people feel, you’re not relying on God. You’re relying on people.″

The Amish will seek medical treatment when it is clearly needed. But, as a nurse at Conewango Valley Medical Center said, ″When they do come to us, it seems like the disease is progressed so far it’s in the later stages.″

The DPT (diptheria, pertussis, tetanus) vaccine, according to Dr. Steven Wassilak at the federal Centers for Disease Control, has reduced the incidence of whooping cough ″from universal infection to about 4,000 cases a year″ since its development in the 1940s.

Still, outbreaks occur every year. Already this year, one Arizona child has died in an outbreak in which 268 cases have been verified. And in Idaho, there have been 325 reported cases this year.

The vaccine has proven safe for nearly all, but Wassilak noted reports have linked it to brain damage in a few cases.

Cattaraugus County Health Commissioner Dr. James D. Garvey says the reported side-effects may contribute to the resistance to inoculation among the Amish.

″I think they know about that,″ he said.

Still, there are signs that attitudes are changing slowly. Garvey said county health nurses have gone door-to-door and vaccinated nearly 40 people. During the last epidemic, only six children were immunized.

″I think they see that it can be more serious (than they thought),″ he said, ″probably because of this one unfortunate death.″

And Hershberger said if he and his wife had an infant now, ″I think we would get the shots.″

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