The measles epidemics disgust the ultra-Orthodox Jews. Here's why many of them are not vaccinated.


A vial of measles, mumps and rubella vaccine as well as an information leaflet are visible at Boston Children's Hospital in Boston. (Brian Snyder / Reuters)

JERUSALEM – The ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel have been particularly affected by the measles epidemic that has been raging for a year in the country and has spread to some ultra-Orthodox communities in the United States.

Health officials say this reason has nothing to do with religion or the ultra-Orthodox way of life, nor with public health services that do not meet the needs of large families.

"Most rabbis encourage vaccination on the basis of Torah commandment to protect their lives," said Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, founder and head of the Deontology Department of Rabbi Tzohar Organization in Israel. "In Judaism, the majority has the right to dictate what is happening in the public space in order to ward off danger."

Yet, "there is no pope in Judaism, and no one can force you to vaccinate," Cherlow said.

In 2018, the Israeli Ministry of Health reported 4,000 cases of measles, up from 30 the previous year. In the United States, this year, 387 cases were reported until March, compared with 372 in 2018, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Immunization rates among ultra-Orthodox Jews in both countries have increased in recent months, following calls from leading rabbis to vaccinate children in their communities and even forbid unvaccinated people from schools and synagogues.

But new cases are reported in particularly insular ultra-Orthodox communities in Israel, New York, and New Jersey, where rabbis believe more in God's will than in the authority of health officials .

In late March, Ed Day, head of Rockland County, New York State, declared the state of emergency to prevent children and teens unvaccinated to go to public places. About 6,000 unvaccinated children, many of whom are ultra-Orthodox, attend county schools.

In 2018, three outbreaks in New York State, New York City, and New Jersey affected mainly unimmunized individuals belonging to Jewish Orthodox communities, associated with travelers reporting measles from Israel, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Despite epidemics, the "vast majority" of American Jews, along with their Christian and Muslim counterparts, have been vaccinated, said Joshua Williams, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Colorado, who studies the role of the clergy in the vaccination process.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews who refuse to vaccinate their children "tend to invoke secular concerns about vaccine safety, the risk of autism and its side effects, and not a religious doctrine," Williams said.

Rafi Goldmeier, a blogger who writes about Orthodox life, said that few Jews refused to be vaccinated for religious reasons "because being anti-vax has nothing to do with Judaism ".

If anything, Goldmeier said, "among the extreme haredim [ultra-Orthodox sects] it's due to a lack of trust in the government. If they see something like a vaccination advocated by the government, they may refuse to do so. "

Hagai Levine, head of the Environmental Health Branch at the Hadassah Braun School of Public Health and Community Medicine of the Hebrew University, said the refusal of vaccination in the ultra-Orthodox Israeli community was "very rare And that about 96% of Israeli children were vaccinated.

This number rises to almost 100% in the Israeli Christian and Muslim communities, who generally follow the recommendations of their leaders.

When ultra-Orthodox parents do not vaccinate their children, it's usually because the health services are not tailored to their specific needs, said Levine.

"Research on past and current measles outbreaks shows that in large families where the mother works and the father is studying Torah full-time, it is very difficult to vaccinate all children on time. They are not anti-vax, "he said.

In Israel, where the average family has three children, ultra-Orthodox families have seven children on average, although 10 or 12 children are not rare. Half of the ultra-Orthodox Jews live below the poverty line because of the high birth rate of the community and the fact that Torah study for men is often favored over participation in the place of worship. job.

While the first child or first children are vaccinated at the right time, "the 10th child is not well vaccinated," noted Levine.

Levine said the universal health system of Israel could do more to prevent measles. He would like to organize home visits in order to get vaccinated or, at the very least, to extend the opening hours of clinics.

Prevention in the very tight ultra-orthodox community is essential, said Levine, because of its overcrowding and high percentage of babies too young to be vaccinated.

"Because measles is so contagious, a vaccination rate of 80-85% is not enough to contain it," he said.

A young American Israeli mother who requested anonymity because she does not want to create discord in her family, said she was scared when her son suffered a British circumcision or ritual in Israel , few months ago.

"There has been a huge measles outbreak in Israel, and my husband is from an immense ultra-Orthodox family," she said. "Some of his brothers and sisters do not vaccinate their children, so when it came time to invite people to the UK, I did not want to invite non-vaxxers."

She said that she had decided to host the whole family to keep "shalom bayit" – peace at home – while keeping her baby away from her family.

Levine pointed out that the measles epidemic in Israel was fueled by epidemics in other countries such as Ukraine and Europe.

"The problem did not start with us, but we were not adequately protected and we now have an epidemic," he said. "It's now our obligation to step up our efforts and vaccinate more people."

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