TUESDAY, Aug 27, 2013 (HealthDay News) -- A measles outbreak has sickened 21 members of a Texas megachurch, including a 4-month-old infant, and more cases are expected, according to local health officials.
Eagle Mountain International Church, in Newark, about 20 miles north of Fort Worth, has been running vaccination clinics since the outbreak began earlier this month, officials said.
In Tarrant County, where the church is located, 11 of the 16 people with measles weren't vaccinated against the disease. The others may have had at least one measles vaccination. None of the five people infected in nearby Denton County had been vaccinated, the Associated Press reported.
The church is part of the Kenneth Copeland Ministries, which urges members to "first seek the wisdom of God" and then "appropriate medical attention from a professional that you know and trust," NBC News reported.
Terri Pearsons, a senior pastor at the church and Copeland's daughter, has previously expressed concerns about possible links between childhood vaccines and autism, USA Today reported. That concern has been repeatedly refuted by health officials.
In a recent sermon, Pearsons encouraged followers who haven't been vaccinated to do so, adding that the Old Testament is "full of precautionary measures."
"I would encourage you to do that. There's absolutely nothing wrong with doing that. Go do it. Go do it. Go do it. And go in faith," said Pearsons. But she added, if "you've got this covered in your household by faith and it crosses your heart of faith then don't go do it," the AP reported.
Robert Hayes, the risk manager for Kenneth Copeland Ministries, said the church has never advised adults or children to avoid immunization for measles, NBC News reported.
Health officials said church leaders have been very cooperative in the outbreak investigation, NBC News reported.
Dr. Paul Offit is chief of the division of infectious diseases and director of the Vaccine Education Center at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. He said that "there are only two ways you can develop specific immunity [to measles], either be infected by the natural virus or be immunized."
He added: "A choice not to get a vaccine is not a risk-free choice. It's a choice to take a different and more serious risk."
According to news reports, the outbreak began after a visitor to the church who had traveled to Indonesia brought the infection back, spreading it to unvaccinated church members. Texas health authorities notified the church of the first cases on Aug. 14 and issued a warning about the outbreak on Aug. 16.
In the interim, hundreds, perhaps more than 1,000 contacts, could have been affected by potentially infected people, Dr. Jane Seward, deputy director for the viral diseases division at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told NBC.
"In this community, these cases so far are all in people who refused vaccination for themselves and their children," she told the network.
Offit said measles is highly contagious. "If someone comes into our hospital with measles no one else can go into the room for the next two hours after the patient has left," he said.
"Before there was a measles vaccine there were about 3 to 4 million cases of measles in the United States, about 100,000 hospitalizations and 500 to 1,000 deaths," Offit said.
The CDC recommends that children get a measles/mumps/rubella vaccine at 12 months and again at 4 to 6 years of age.
To learn more about measles, visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.