By Rabbi Hershy Z. Ten
President of Bikur Cholim, Los Angeles, CA
Imagine a 6 year old child walking into a classroom waving a loaded gun amidst his classmates while his pregnant teacher acts as if nothing is wrong. Now imagine a week later 4 more gun-toting children come to school with no objection from any school personnel. While this scenario is inconceivable, in fact this deadly game of Russian Roulette is happening in our own communities at an alarming rate. Over the past several weeks the deadly disease of measles has returned. From Disneyland in Orange County to Santa Monica, the number of potentially life-threatening cases is growing every day. The cause is simple, not enough children are being vaccinated which is placing us all at risk.
Every day, there are anti-vaxxer parents sending their children into schools, playgroups, synagogues, and public gatherings as unwitting biological weapons; creating breeding grounds for contagious diseases long thought to be eradicated in America thanks to the success of vaccinations.
Some Los Angeles Jewish day schools have reported that in recent years (2013 – 2014) as many as 21% of their kindergarten students are not immunized due to the Personal Beliefs Exemption. These children sit and play with your children; their parents take them to pizza shops, celebrations, everywhere. Adults who were vaccinated aren’t safe either, as the potency and effectiveness of childhood vaccinations eventually wears off. And since there is no way of identifying these carriers, everyone is a potential victim in the line of fire.
The efficacy of MMR vaccines relies on “herd immunity”; meaning that 95% of the population must be immunized to ensure that an infected person cannot spread disease. This is especially vital to the 1% of the population who experience adverse physical reactions to vaccines thus cannot be vaccinated. And when the herd immunity is compromised, the most contagious diseases are the first to return. We’ve seen the return of pertussis (whooping cough), mumps, and now measles. To put this danger into perspective, measles carries the distinction of being the world’s most contagious disease. Just one infected child in a crowd can spread measles to every other person present who hasn’t been vaccinated, leading to hospitalization and possible death.
Babies are scheduled to get their first measles shot at 12 to 15 months of age (but no earlier than 6 months) which means that within the first year of their lives, they are defenseless against anyone walking around spreading this life-threatening disease. In fact, measles is so widespread in California that public health officials have advised parents to keep all babies under immunization age away from crowds, international travelers, and airports.
For those below the poverty-line, affordability was thought to be the obstacle to immunization; however since vaccinations are available through all public health systems, this resistance isn’t stemming from a lack of funds. Over the past decade there has been a significant uptick of well-educated and economically stable households opting not to immunize their children citing personal and religious beliefs as their mantra. Unfortunately the choice not to vaccinate is most often based on false data that incites fear among parents. Much is due to people clinging to erroneous studies published such as the now discredited and fraudulent 1998 research paper authored by Andrew J. Wakefield, MD falsely claiming links between the MMR vaccine and autism and bowel disease; all of which was uniformly discredited by the worldwide medical community and recanted by the author himself. Exacerbating the problem are irresponsible laypeople, especially celebrities, who publicly decry vaccinations with absolutely zero medical credentials or supporting research.
For anyone suffering from measles it is a potential killer. For the pregnant woman, measles places their unborn child at risk to develop stunted growth, mental retardation, malformations of the heart and eyes, deafness, and liver, spleen, and bone marrow problems.
While school administrators are aware of which students are not vaccinated, their teachers are not. So what is a pregnant teacher to do? Should a policy be put in place to have unvaccinated children removed from school? What is the anti-vaxxer parent’s responsibility, must they disclose that their children pose a risk to others? While many pediatricians are now refusing to continue caring for patients who are unvaccinated, equal measures need to be implemented by our schools and synagogues against this potential epidemic. Just little more than 25 years ago, America was hit by a major measles outbreak which infected 55,000 people and killed 120, with half of said deaths occurring in California.
A fundamental tenet of the Torah is to lead a healthy lifestyle and not put oneself or a fellow human-being at risk. The observant community has always looked to its rabbinical and educational leaders for guidance and there are substantial halachic sources supporting immunization that should be championed and set forth to help protect our children and society. There is no shortage of sermons from the pulpit expressing opinions on regional or global politics or lobbying congregants to join on missions to our nation’s Capital. Policies are established by educators to shelter students from inappropriate media and etiquette that may compromise our values and iron gates and guards employed to protect our synagogues and schools. With the very real threat that measles poses, we must call on our leadership to allay the unsubstantiated fear of vaccinations and thwart this deadly anti-vaxxer trend.
L. Quaytman contributed to this article.