TARRANT COUNTY, Texas - A Texas mega-church at the epicenter of a measles outbreak is preaching immunizations for its congregants despite previous statements by its founder that vaccines may cause autism.
There are 20 confirmed cases of measles in the latest outbreak, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services. At least eight of the patients are members of the Eagle Mountain International Church, church officials said, and 15 of the cases are in Tarrant County where the church is located.
Of the 15 cases in Tarrant County, 11 had not received all of the recommended vaccinations to prevent measles according to the Tarrant County Public Health website. The other cases may have been partially vaccinated, there is no official documentation to verify their vaccine history.
Some positions taken by church leadership in the past have led to Eagle Mountain being labeled anti-vaccine in the media. But now the church is speaking out against that notion.
"We have never taken an anti-vaccine position. It has never been preached by this pulpit or put forth by our leadership," insisted Robert Hayes, a spokesman for the church.
However, the mega-church's leader, Kenneth Copeland,has promoted the idea that vaccines are dangerous for children and may be linked to autism. Putting emphasis on the power of faith healing, Copeland has urged his followers on the church's website to resist the pressure to vaccinate their children.
In an August 2010 Believer's Voice of Victory webcast, Copeland discussed having his first grandchild and being alarmed at the number of vaccinations the child was supposed to be given. He called the process of immunization "downright criminal."
Hayes said the church has gone back over the 45 years of tapes and transcripts of sermons and found nothing that would give the impression the church is anti-vaccine. He is currently reviewing the 2010 webcast and said he will address it if church leadership feels it is necessary.
When asked about the webcast and other anti-vaccine references, Hayes said, "I can't tell you where it's coming from. I can only tell you where it isn't coming from. We quote chapter and verse and people have drawn their own conclusions rather than listening to intent."
The church's pastor Terri Copeland Pearsons, who is Kenneth Copeland's daughter, recently began urging her congregation to get immunized as soon as she was informed by the Tarrant County Health Department about the outbreak.
In a sermon last week, Pearsons offered free vaccination clinics and advised those who did not attend one of the clinics to quarantine themselves at home for two weeks.
Russell Jones, an epidemiologist with the Tarrant County Health Department, said that the church has been cooperative with public health efforts to prevent further spread of measles. Jones said that the church's clinics have already provided more than 200 measles vaccinations though he was unsure about what percentage of the congregation that represented.
In a statement on the church website, Pearsons said she was not against immunizations, but also raised concerns about them.
"Some people think I am against immunizations, but that is not true," the statement said. "Vaccinations help cut the mortality rate enormously. I believe it is wrong to be against vaccinations. 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. There is no indication of the autism connection with vaccinations in older children. Furthermore, the new MMR vaccination is without thimerosal (mercury), which has also been a concern to many."
Dr. William Schaffner, chairman of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tenn., said Pearson's statement is not in line with current scientific thinking.
"It is important to stick with the immunization schedule laid out by medical experts," he said. "Delaying immunization leaves children susceptible to measles and other communicable diseases."
More than 90 percent of Texans received MMR vaccinations, making its estimated vaccination rate better than 30 other states, according to 2010 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which is the most recent data available.
Schaffner noted that refusal to vaccinate is on the rise, partly because health officials have done such a good job eradicating diseases through immunization. He said people no longer remember a time when measles caused over 400 deaths a year and there is increasing skepticism about the effectiveness and safety of vaccination.
"It's like we've turned back the clock to the pre-vaccine era and put our children and our neighbors at risk for profound illness," he said.