I am a pediatrician at the Clinic for Special Children in Lancaster County. The clinic is a nonprofit medical facility for Amish and Mennonite — Plain —children with genetic disorders and complex medical needs.
Established in 1989, our clinic cares for more than 2,000 children who have special medical needs and represent more than 150 distinct genetic conditions. Many of these conditions are rare in the general population, but concentrated among Plain communities due to a unique genetic background.
The clinic integrates highly specialized medicine into sound general pediatric care, including infectious disease prevention.
We advocate vaccination for all children; vaccines are fundamental to protecting kids against some of the most life-threatening infections.
Recently, I read a series of online articles suggesting that all Amish families refuse vaccines and are healthier as a consequence. In my experience as a physician practicing within the Amish community, this idea struck me as unfounded and misleading.
At the Clinic for Special Children, we administer about 350 vaccines each year.
Within the Plain populations, people’s opinions about vaccination vary; some parents support vaccination while others do not. In this way, various beliefs and controversies surrounding vaccination among Plain sects differ little from those in mainstream American culture.
Some families vaccinate all of their children, whether they are healthy or suffer from complex medical problems. Others choose to vaccinate only those children who are medically fragile.
From my perspective, we care for children who are particularly vulnerable to the dangers of infections. For many of them, even a routine illness can prove fatal.
Some have medical risks such as heart malformations or poorly developed lungs that make respiratory illnesses life-threatening.
Others have poor immune systems that impede their natural ability to fight infections. If these children have repeated infections, they develop irreversible lung damage that leaves them debilitated for life.
Many children we serve have genetic conditions that interfere with the breakdown of nutrients; such children are at risk for irreversible brain injury when threatened by serious infectious illnesses. For these children, the risk of not vaccinating is grave.
As a pediatrician, I feel compelled to tell parents that to decline vaccines for their children entails serious risk. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Amish communities in the United States and Canada have suffered several vaccine-preventable disease outbreaks, including polio, rubella, whooping cough, measles and mumps.
During our clinic’s 25-year history, we have seen the devastating consequences of several vaccine-preventable illnesses: meningitis, whooping cough, chickenpox and measles.
I understand the decision to vaccinate a child is complex for some parents, and there is much rhetoric surrounding this issue. But as a physician and a mother, it pains me to see children suffer from illnesses that are so easily preventable. This has compelled me to write candidly on this subject.
I urge parents to base this decision on sound medical evidence rather than anecdotal reports and hearsay. These recent articles contain gross inaccuracies that serve only to stereotype the Amish community and obscure the plain truth about vaccines.
Remember, your child’s health comes first.
Dr. Katie Williams is a pediatrician at the Clinic for Special Children in Strasburg. She earned her medical degree at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health.