Just a Prick: What happens when communities stop vaccinating?

Haredim and Hollywood

We never thought we’d say this, but there is a dangerous similarity between children raised in the wealthy, sun-soaked Los Angeles enclave of Westside and children whose families follow an ultra-Orthodox rabbi who runs a prominent yeshiva in Philadelphia. Both are victims of their parents’ misguided decision to bypass science and civics by ignoring the accepted schedule of vaccinating youngsters against communicable diseases.

Their fears that vaccines are, in Rabbi Shmuel Kamenetsky’s words “a hoax,” or just a marketing device by the medical establishment, or that the series of shots recommended for youngsters are invasive and dangerous — those fears may spring from a well-intended concern about children’s health and individual autonomy. But not only do those who refuse to vaccinate their children risk harming the very young beings they profess to protect. They also risk harming you. And your children. And the civic enterprise that undergirds public health.

That, frankly, is unforgivable.

It’s not known how many of Kamenetsky’s followers heed his words, but as our Josh Nathan-Kazis reports, ultra-Orthodox Jews who declined to vaccinate their children have been at the center of a handful of outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases in recent years, including one large measles outbreak in Brooklyn in 2013, another in London the same year and an earlier outbreak in Jerusalem in 2007.

There is no argument based on Jewish law that prompts Kamenetsky’s injunction, only, it seems, blind ignorance propelled by suspicion of the state. Worse yet, the powerful umbrella organization representing ultra-Orthodox Jews, Agudath Israel of America, declines to take a position on vaccination, essentially abrogating its reponsibilities to protect Jewish children and to behave like good citizens.

Even more infuriating is the documented trend among well-educated parents in L.A.’s Westside and other wealthy neighborhoods to forego immunizations. According to the The Hollywood Reporter, vaccination rates are plummeting so fast at top Hollywood schools that they now rival those in developing countries like Chad and South Sudan. There’s been a resurgence in cases of whooping cough in California, mostly among the young — a potentially fatal disease that we thought was nearly eliminated by the very vaccines that now are being shunned.

While there is, unfortunately, no way to outlaw bad parenting, this crisis goes well beyond individual decision making. Vaccines work on the theory of herd immunity, the notion that disease outbreaks can be prevented if a population has a high proportion of people who are immune to a given disease. That proportion is dropping to dangerous levels in L.A. and could be at risk in some ultra-Orthodox communities as well. The social contract demands that we care for ourselves and for others. Seems to us that Jewish values make the same demand.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.

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