THE HAGUE, June 12 (Xinhua) -- In the so-called Dutch "Bible Belt," a strip of land mainly inhabited by conservative Protestants, a measles epidemic has broken out since late May, the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM) said on Wednesday.
Local outbreak of the measles, an infection of the respiratory system, was reported around reformatory schools in the Land of Heusden and Altena region, the Bommelerwaard and the Alblasserwaard. In addition, patients were reported in the provinces of Zeeland, Utrecht and the rural area in the Randstad.
Most Dutch people are vaccinated against measles through the national vaccination program which was introduced in 1976 to protect all children at the age of 14 months and at the age of 9 years against measles. However, some people living in the Bible Belt choose not be vaccinated against diseases out of religious considerations.
"There is a phrase in the Bible which says intervening is against the will of god," explained Roel Coutinho, director of the RIVM Centre for Infectious Disease Control, to Xinhua.
"Therefore, people choose to let themselves and their children not be vaccinated. We are talking about several thousands of unvaccinated children currently at risk of getting measles," Coutinho said.
So far, more than 30 patients with measles have been reported. The actual number is probably much higher because not all patients have attended the doctor.
In recent years, several outbreaks of measles occurred in Europe. In 1999/2000, the Netherlands witnessed its last measles epidemic, which mainly took place in the Bible Belt, with around 3000 patients with measles reported and 150 children admitted to hospital. Three children died from the effects of the disease.
"We expect the disease to spread again like in 1999/2000. These people have much contact with each other, through schools or other social occasions. But maybe it is OK this time, because it's the holiday season. All non-vaccinated children born after the last outbreak are susceptible to the disease." added Coutinho.
"We have had the debate of mandatory vaccination but that is not possible. Some people would rather go to jail than to be vaccinated. That's just against their religion," he said.
Measles is caused by a virus distributed via coughing and sneezing. The disease is highly contagious with one sick child able to infect over 10 others who have not been vaccinated. The most common symptoms of measles are high fever, colds, spots and red eyes. Measles can also cause encephalitis or death, but this is rare in developed countries.
Coutinho could not tell the origin of the current measles.
"The current virus is detected elsewhere in Europe as well, but we do not know exactly if or how it ended up in the Netherlands," he said.