An unintended consequence of the revolution in medical science in the last century has been complacency. Measles, a highly contagious viral disease, was eradicated in this country in 2000 by nearly universal vaccination. But it has been much longer since its widespread appearance among children — along with mumps, rubella, whooping cough and others — to the point that many no longer view these diseases as potential health hazards.
Yet measles, one of the world’s most infectious diseases, is making a comeback. “A person with measles can cough in a room, leave, and — if you are unvaccinated — hours later, you could catch the virus from the droplets in the air that they left behind. No other virus can do that,” Julia Belluz writes in Vox.
Into the vacuum came the “anti-vaxers.” Their chief argument is that the MMR vaccine that protects against measles, mumps and rubella can cause autism. That this view has been scientifically debunked has not stopped a small but growing number of stubborn families across the country from sending their children to school unvaccinated.
Among Jews, primarily in haredi Orthodox communities, the pseudo-scientific warnings of anti-vaxers, coupled with the exhortations of a very small minority of religious authorities and a belief that their insular communities shield them from the ills of the wider world, have contributed to measles outbreaks in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg and Borough Park neighborhoods, and in Rockland County, north of New York City. The 94 measles cases in Rockland County alone is reported to be more than one-third of the cases in the entire United States for 2018.
As Vox reported, “The fearmongerers include the Brooklyn group called PTACH — or Parents Teaching and Advocating for Children’s Health — which spreads misinformation about vaccine safety, citing rabbis as authorities.” Brooklyn Orthodox Rabbi William Handler, another anti-vaxer, told Vox that parents who “placate the gods of vaccination” are engaging in “child sacrifice.”
We have the shaping of a real crisis in the Jewish community — one that is completely preventable. There is no legitimate religious exemption to vaccinating one’s children — a truth endorsed by most haredi halachic authorities. Families that choose not to vaccinate are endangering not only their own children but other people’s children as well. And since the close quarters of schools are the perfect place to transmit a highly contagious disease, the presence of unvaccinated children in any school creates a clear health hazard.
To be sure, only a fraction of the population is not vaccinating. But that fraction is still a serious threat to everyone else. As Rabbi Avi Greenstein, executive director of the Boro Park Jewish Community Council, put it: “We need to take away the lesson of how important it is for every one of us to avail ourselves of modern medicine and not to trust in herd immunity, but rather to follow the vaccination schedule recommended by medical professionals to protect our families and our entire community.”