At this time last year, most high school students in the tri-state area didn’t give much thought to the measles, nor were they familiar with the term “anti-vaxxer.” Today, that is no longer the case. The measles outbreak has dominated the news these last few months and virtually every report links the word “measles” with the term “anti-vaxxer.” Measles is an infectious disease which is highly contagious and lasts for 7-10 days. Some of its symptoms include fever, inflamed eyes and a red rash across the body, and it can be fatal in some cases. Measles is easily prevented with a vaccine, in which the first dose is given to babies between 6-12 months old, and the second dose given to children 4-6 years old. “Anti-vaxxers” are people who oppose vaccines or laws that mandate vaccines.
Due to the prevalence of vaccinations, contracting measles has been relatively rare in the tri-state area. However, the number of parents who refuse to vaccinate their children has increased in recent years. Some people believe there is a causal connection between vaccinations and autism. Others worry that giving the vaccine itself can cause their child to contract the disease, which is a rare possibility. During the 2017-2018 school year, about 26,000 students were exempt from vaccinations based on religious beliefs in New York.
There have been about 654 cases reported in the New York area since October 2018. But according to The Associated Press, the outbreak is now over. No new infections have been reported during the past two incubations periods, but officials still warn New Yorkers to get vaccinated.
Most of the original outbreak occurred in neighborhoods with a large population of Orthodox Jews, leading many to conclude that the Orthodox don’t vaccinate because it is against their religion and their Rabbis don’t allow it. Those outside the community have expressed that the Orthodox are not only endangering the lives of their own children, but the lives of others. This fallacy, due in part to the intense media coverage focusing on the epidemic and the affected communities, has harmed the reputation of the Orthodox, and in a sense the broader Jewish community.
Although the outbreak is now officially over, the Orthodox community, of which I am a member, has been striving to set the record straight and get its message out. Firstly, the vast majority of Orthodox Jews vaccinate their children. It is unclear why a small percentage of Orthodox Jews refuse to vaccinate. There is no known Rabbinic opinion that supports the anti-vaxxers, according to Rabbi Dr. Aaron Glatt, a renowned infectious disease doctor who also serves as Assistant Rabbi at the Orthodox Young Israel of Woodmere. He asserts that the majority of Rabbis in the Orthodox world have stated that it is an obligation to vaccinate, which stems from the biblical command in the book of Deuteronomy ונשמרתם מאד לנפשתיכם״” – to guard your health. A minority hold that it is not an obligation, but it is nonetheless a suggestion to vaccinate. No one has been able to cite any leading Rabbinic figure who has prohibited vaccinations. Thus, the refusal to vaccinate does not stem from the fact that these anti-vaxxers are Orthodox Jews. It is not based on their religious obligations and in fact many hold it is a violation of them.
Nonetheless, by identifying the anti-vaxxers as Orthodox, the implication is that their refusal to vaccinate is religious in nature, which is a misconception that has harmed the community. It would seem that Orthodox anti-vaxxers refuse to vaccinate their children because they believe, like non-religious anti-vaxxers, that it poses a health risk to their children. Perhaps because Orthodox anti-vaxxers tend to have many more children and live in close proximity to each other than non-religious anti vaxxers, measles outbreaks have tended to occur in neighborhoods with high concentrations of Orthodox Jews.
In fact, the Orthodox elementary/middle school on Long Island that I attended refused to admit unvaccinated students, which is in line with the position of the vast majority of its parent body and the greater Orthodox community. A number of parents decided to vaccinate their children as a result of information given to them by the school about vaccinations (and probably felt the benefit of having their children attend school outweighed their concerns about vaccinations). However, one set of parents who claimed a “religious exemption” went to the State Education Department who sided with them, forcing the school to allow them to attend. The school appealed the decision, which has not yet been decided. Later in the year, the school blocked the children from attending an after school activity. A federal judge in Brooklyn ruled in favor of the school.
In June, the New York State legislature rescinded the religious exemption, in recognition of the fact that 1. contemporary science has not shown any causal link between vaccinations and autism and 2. the health risk to the majority of the population outweighs any slight risks that may exist. The state has the right to rescind a religious exemption if the health of the majority of its citizens is at risk. Last week, a judge upheld the law, which is likely to be appealed. However, both the law repealing the religious exemption and the fact that it was upheld in the courts indicate that it is unlikely that the State Education Department will order the school to allow unvaccinated students to attend.
It is comforting to hear that the outbreak is over, but the negative stigma associated with the Orthodox community has already been propelled into the world. Hopefully, the position taken by my alma mater will serve to help get the message out that the majority of Orthodox Jews vaccinate their children and that the precepts of Orthodox Judaissm do not support the position of “anti-vaxxers.”
Essie Abittan is a senior at Manhattan High School for Girls in Manhattan.