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Amish families must decide on polio vaccinations

CLARISSA, Minn. – Residents of an isolated Amish community appear divided on what to do after doctors diagnosed four cases of the polio virus in their children. Some have decided on vaccinations to ward off future polio cases, while others prefer leaving the matter in God’s hands.

About two dozen Amish households dot the hillsides in central Minnesota’s rolling farm country. On Thursday, state health officials announced the four polio infections – the first known cases in the United States in five years.

The Amish community – it has no official name – has seen a flurry of visitors from the state Health Department after three siblings under 16 were diagnosed. Two weeks earlier, an infant from the community had been diagnosed with polio, and state doctors expect more cases to turn up.

None of the four has developed symptoms, and health officials say most polio cases do not result in paralysis. But they have urged members of the community to be immunized as soon as possible to reduce the chances the virus will spread. Only unvaccinated people are at risk.

“The doctors were here to talk to us,” said Susie Borntreger, a young Amish mother who was hunting down snakes with a hoe in her yard Friday. “They talked with my husband. They told us we should think about the vaccine.”

The Borntregers decided to vaccinate their two sons, ages 2 and 1. But that decision is not universal. Some Amish families here don’t trust vaccinations.

“Some people are very open, some people want to think about it, some people just say no,” said Harry Hull, the state epidemiologist.

After consulting with Amish community leaders, state and county officials decided to approach families separately about vaccinations to avoid social pressures in the extremely close-knit community.

Until 2000, the United States used a live virus vaccine for polio – which caused about eight cases of paralytic polio a year. The United States and Canada now use an injected vaccine made from the killed virus, but some Amish still fear that a vaccination could inadvertently infect their children with polio.


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