It’s happening again. A year and a half after measles sickened about 75 children in Minnesota and sent 21 of them to the hospital, an even bigger outbreak has hit New York.
In both cases, the outbreaks occurred in cultural enclaves in which falsehoods and myths have been spread to parents. In Minnesota, it occurred among the Somali population; in New York, the illnesses are linked to the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, especially in Rockland County. A smaller outbreak among the group has popped up in Brooklyn, and another in New Jersey.
And in both the Minnesota and New York cases, cases, health authorities said the communities were targeted by anti-vaccine activists spreading myths about the measles vaccine.
According to a report in Vox:
What’s notable here is that all of the cases are occurring among unvaccinated or under-vaccinated Orthodox Jews, mainly children. When asked why people are opting out of vaccines, the city health department said anti-vaccine propagandists are distributing misinformation in the community.
The fearmongers include the Brooklyn group called PEACH — or Parents Teaching and Advocating for Children’s Health — which spreads misinformation about vaccine safety, citing rabbis as authorities, through a hotline and magazines. Brooklyn Orthodox Rabbi William Handler has also been proclaiming the well-debunked link between the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism. Parents who “placate the gods of vaccination” are engaging in “child sacrifice,” he told Vox.
It’s worth noting that the Jewish religion does not in any way forbid or discourage vaccination. On the contrary, two large, respected Jewish organizations, the Orthodox Union and the Rabbinical Council of America, released this statement about the outbreak in mid-November:
Orthodox Jewish parents, like responsible parents across the United States, overwhelmingly vaccinate their children against measles, mumps, rubella, polio and the other childhood diseases for which inoculations are now almost miraculously commonplace. As in many communities, a small minority of parents chooses not to do so. The ongoing measles outbreak demonstrates how this could bear very serious consequences, not only for their own children but others’ too, especially those medically unable to be vaccinated. The Orthodox Union (OU) and the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) strongly urge all parents to vaccinate their healthy children on the timetable recommended by their pediatrician.
So far, 87 people have gotten sick with the measles in Rockland County alone and at least two dozen more in Brooklyn.
Measles is no longer endemic to the United States, meaning that outbreaks originate from unvaccinated people visiting other countries. In this case, health officials say measles was brought into these communities by unvaccinated people who visited Israel, which is suffering through a large and quickly expanding outbreak. More than 2,000 Israelis have fallen ill this year, most of them in the ultra-Orthodox community, the Times of Israel reported. An 18-month-old toddler has died. In addition, a 3-week-old baby who caught the disease from her mother was recently hospitalized.
This was the first time in 15 years that anyone had died of the measles in Israel, and that 2004 death was the first since 1994. In other words, the measles vaccine works extremely well at preventing suffering.
According to the report, the Knesset, Israel’s legislative body, is considering a range of strict measures to protect the population now and in the future. It “gave preliminary approval to legislation that would take away tax credits and welfare benefits from parents who refuse to vaccinate their children. It would prevent unvaccinated children and teachers from entering educational institutions during an outbreak,” the publication reported.
Just last week, the World Health Organization released a report saying that measles was on the rise through much of the globe, including Europe and Latin America:
Reported measles cases spiked in 2017, as multiple countries experienced severe and protracted outbreaks of the disease. This is according to a new report published today by leading health organizations.
Because of gaps in vaccination coverage, measles outbreaks occurred in all regions, while there were an estimated 110 000 deaths related to the disease.
Using updated disease modeling data, the report provides the most comprehensive estimates of measles trends over the last 17 years. It shows that since 2000, over 21 million lives have been saved through measles immunizations. However, reported cases increased by more than 30 percent worldwide from 2016.
The Americas, the Eastern Mediterranean Region, and Europe experienced the greatest upsurges in cases in 2017, with the Western Pacific the only World Health Organization (WHO) region where measles incidence fell.
This is discouraging news about a dangerous disease that can kill and permanently injure its victims, yet one that can easily be prevented through a two-dose vaccination that is 97 percent effective. It’s also troubling to think that people would try to talk parents out of protecting their children with vaccination from a disease that spreads so easily among those who have not been immunized.
“Measles is a serious and highly contagious disease,” the statement from WHO says. “It can cause debilitating or fatal complications, including encephalitis (an infection that leads to swelling of the brain), severe diarrhea and dehydration, pneumonia, ear infections and permanent vision loss. Babies and young children with malnutrition and weak immune systems are particularly vulnerable to complications and death.”