Measles is stalking the American and Israeli Orthodox Jewish communities. As of this writing, 17 children have been diagnosed with measles in the largely Orthodox enclaves of Williamsburg and Borough Park, Brooklyn. In two other communities with similar demographics — Lakewood, New Jersey and Rockland County, New York, several dozen children have come down with the measles. In Israel, more than 1,200 kids have been infected, and a child has died.
In the U.S., most of the affected children are from ultra Orthodox communities. Their parents have chosen to avoid at least some or all vaccines, thanks, in part, to the spread of misinformation from religious leaders such as Rabbi William Handler, who recently told Vox that parents who “placate the gods of vaccination” are actually engaging in “child sacrifice.” Another community group known as PEACH (Parents Teaching and Advocating for Children’s Health) disseminates pamphlets to observant communities riddled with inaccuracies and statements such as, “You can always vaccinate later. You can never unvaccinate.”
Despite these voices, many other rabbis have come forward to remind community members of the importance of vaccination. Members of the Rabbinical Council of America, the Orthodox Union, and the haredi Agudas Harabonim-Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the United States and Canada have repeatedly called upon all Jews to vaccinate their children, pointing to the requirement in Jewish law to save lives.
Just why are we seeing these outbreaks? “We’ve eliminated measles and we’ve eliminated the memory of measles,” says Dr. Paul Offit, the Maurice R. Hilleman Chair of Vaccinology at University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, explaining that people simply do not remember what the measles was like.
Fortunately, the vaccine can prevent us from unnecessary suffering. When we vaccinate, we are engaging in one of the truest form of tikkun olam: vaccination allows all of us to act with kindness to others and to protect our most vulnerable community members. Here are six things to know about the measles virus and the measles, mumps, rubella (MMR) vaccine.
Measles Is the World’s Most Contagious Disease
Many diseases are contagious: One child comes home sick, and within a day or two, the whole family is sniffling and sneezing. But measles trumps them all — it is the most transmittable virus known to mankind. It’s airborne and will linger for hours. If you head into a room where there was a case of measles and you’re not vaccinated, you run a 90 percent chance of being infected. (The risk only drops to 60 percent in the next three hours.) For every case of measles, between 12 and 18 people who are not vaccinated will be infected. Without the wall of protection provided by vaccination via herd immunity, many vulnerable members of the community can be hurt by the measles.
Measles Carries a Huge Risk of Complications
Roughly one in three people infected with measles will develop complications. Before the introduction of the vaccine in the United States, more than 50,000 people were hospitalized each year because of measles. Complications range from ear infections to pneumonia, and one of the most feared complications is SSPE (Subacute sclerosing panencephalitis), in which the measles virus inflames brain tissue. This is one the reasons measles is so dangerous in young children and, unless caught very early, SSPE is nearly almost always fatal.
Measles Destroys the Immune System
One of the worst things about a measles infection is that it can bring on other infections that can not only harm but kill children. A study by Princeton researchers found that measles infection increased vulnerability to other infections for up to three years. In countries where measles vaccination has been introduced and promoted, the vaccine not only drops mortality rates from measles, it decreases the overall childhood mortality rates from all infections by as much as 50 percent.
The Measles Vaccine Is Not Linked to Autism
This myth began more than 20 years ago with a doctor from the United Kingdom named Andrew Wakefield, who published an article in the British Journal of Medicine alleging that there was a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. This paper was retracted by the journal and has since been widely repudiated. Many studies have been done since then. None have found any connection.
The Measles Vaccine Does Not Shed
One of the allegations leveled against the vaccine is that it “sheds,” or can cause others to come down with the virus. This is not true. Since the introduction of the vaccine, the number of cases of measles in U.S. has declined drastically. Giving a child the MMR vaccine poses no risks to any other family members.
The Vaccine is Cheap and Effective
Two doses of the MMR vaccine provide protection for 97 percent of the population — enough to prevent the disease’s transmission through the community. People who are unsure of their vaccine status should consult with their doctor. Even a single MMR shot provides over 90 percent protection and reduces the chance of transmitting the virus. When the measles virus cannot get a foothold, it cannot spread, and the disease dies.