Two fundamentalist Christian churches — Faith Tabernacle Congregation and First Century Gospel Church — were at the heart of the outbreak. Children had not been vaccinated, and when they became ill, their parents prayed instead of taking them to the hospital to receive the intravenous fluids or oxygen that could have saved their lives of those with the worst cases. “If I go to God and ask him to heal my body,” said a church member, Gordon Korn, “I can’t go to a doctor for medicine. You either trust God or you trust man.”
Public health officials turned to the courts to intervene. First, they got a court order to examine the churches’ children in their homes, then to admit children to the hospital for medical care. Finally, they did something that had never been done before or since: They got a court order to vaccinate children against their parents’ will. Children were briefly made wards of the state, vaccinated and returned to their parents. At the time, a religious exemption to vaccination had been on the books in Pennsylvania for about a decade.
To prevent doctors from violating his church’s beliefs against vaccination, the pastor of the Faith Tabernacle Church asked the American Civil Liberties Union to represent him. It refused. “There is certainly a free exercise of religion claim by the parents,” said Deborah Levy, of the Philadelphia chapter of the A.C.L.U., “but there is also a competing claim that parents don’t have the right to martyr their children.”
When spring came and the epidemic faded, C.D.C. officials published the results of their investigation. Over a third of those infected — 486 of 1,424 — belonged to one of those two churches, as did six of the nine dead children.
At the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, we saw more than 200 children in our emergency department and admitted about 40. Children would come in, covered in rashes, squinting in the bright light (a side effect caused by eye irritation), struggling to breathe and often extremely dehydrated. It was like being in a war zone. When I asked their parents why they had done what they had done, they all had the same answer: “Jesus was my doctor.”