Should vaccinations be required?

Recently, a part of the Orthodox Jewish community in Los Angeles was struck by a serious outbreak of measles due to the actions of some parents choosing to forgo vaccinating their children. So far, 20 people have been infected by the disease. According to the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, none of these families were able to provide concrete proof that their children had been vaccinated. Not only was this choice counter to the interest of their children, it was a flagrant violation of the law (California lifted religious exemptions from vaccinations six months ago).

These Jewish families, lamentably, put their own children in grave danger, as well as placing children throughout the county at substantial risk. According to a report: “The county tracked down some 2,000 people who may have come into contact with the infected children and found that about 10 percent of them had also not been vaccinated.”

As previously stated, measles is extremely contagious. Before widespread vaccination began in the 1960s, 3-4 million Americans succumbed to measles annually. Tens of thousands were hospitalized. Hundreds died. With the advent of an effective vaccination, the situation changed dramatically. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), people who receive one dose of the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine in their childhood have a 93 percent lifetime protection rate if exposed to measles and 97 percent lifetime protection rate with a second dose.

Since the creation of the CDC’s Vaccines for Children program in 1994, about 92 percent of children between 19-35 months received their MMR vaccinations without hassle. While 10 states had a vaccination rate of 95 percent by 2013, 17 others had rates below 90 percent. Nevertheless, in 2000 the United States declared “measles elimination” – the absence of measles in a geographic area for at least one year. Sporadic outbreaks have occurred, stemming from people traveling between countries that still have measles (20 million people still contract measles worldwide annually) and, in a few cases, by unvaccinated populations. Since 2013, sadly, the number of cases have increased, caused by parents who’ve refused to accept the medical imperative to vaccinate their children.

Why the reticence? Unfortunately, an infamous and long-debunked 1998 study of 12 children with falsified data created the notion that the MMR vaccine is linked to autism, spurred on in the popular culture by ill-informed celebrities (and even the current president). Fortunately, every major medical organization has confirmed the safety of the MMR vaccine and nine CDC studies have found that there is no link between the MMR vaccine and autism. Should vaccine levels continue to drop, however, the CDC warns that: “measles could become endemic.”

Parents, of course, have the prerogative to choose to vaccinate their children or refuse to. They have the right to choose to homeschool their children and drop out of the public or private school system; they are free to make their own decisions. But once these children leave the home and become part of the broader community, then the parents’ personal decisions (in this regard) become moot. The community is now affected by these choices. And it is not fair for the broader Jewish community to have reticent families withhold this medical necessity and put other families at risk. Jewish explicators throughout history have interpreted the mandates of the Torah to remind us to always remove dangers from our midst; protecting our health is paramount.

Should parents call their local schools boards and insist that a firm policy is in place and that all families submit their vaccination records to the school administration? The health and well-being of our children is more than worthy of community discussion, and our Jewish schools should be transparent about their priorities with our community. Indeed, it should take the highest priority, locally and beyond.

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is president and dean of Valley Beit Midrash and author of several books about ethics.

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