It is always disturbing when a disease eradicated by vaccines decades ago reappears, and that is certainly the case with the recent measles outbreaks in New York centered in the ultra–Orthodox Jewish communities of Williamsburg, Rockland, and Borough Park. However, it’s important to understand the primary driver of this outbreak is not religious practice and that there is no basis in Jewish law for not getting vaccinated. Rather, this is merely another example of the dangers of the global and conspiratorial “anti-vaxxer” movement.
A recent New York Times article entitled “‘Monkey, Rat and Pig DNA’: How Misinformation Is Driving the Measles Outbreak Among Ultra-Orthodox Jews” explores the issue of anti-vaxxer disinformation targeted towards these communities. A group calling itself “Parents Educating and Advocating for Children’s Health”, or PEACH, has been promulgating its “Vaccine Safety Handbook,” which includes the usual debunked lies, as well as letters signed by some of the most prominent Ultra-Orthodox rabbis, themselves taken in by anti-vaxxer propaganda. The deference accorded to the opinions of these rabbis, based solely on misinformation rather than Jewish Law, lends a veneer of religious legitimacy to the insidious lies they’re amplifying.
This handbook, as well as fliers, hotlines and elaborate anti-vaxxer conferences featuring doctors and rabbis preaching against vaccines or downplaying the danger of the diseases have spread the propaganda like wildfire. Nobody knows precisely who is behind PEACH, though they are backed by other national anti-vaxxer groups and have disturbingly targeted other Orthodox communities in the US.
The article also says:
“Most prominent ultra-Orthodox rabbis… urge observant Jews to be immunized….The majority of ultra-Orthodox Jews emphatically say they would never go against the advice of doctors, and health officials say most Hasidim are vaccinated.”
According to the Center For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the outbreaks began in October after Hasidic Jews in Israel returned to the United States after celebrating the Jewish holiday of Succoth in the midst of a measles outbreak. The World Health Organization (WHO) report in 2018 said Israel had some of the highest vaccination rates in the world, and that the main issue was the large size of Ultra-Orthodox families coupled with logistical difficulties, which Israel quickly resolved to try and stem the spread of the disease. In the US, according to the Times’ sources, Orthodox Jewish communities vaccinate at about the same rate as Americans as a whole.
Unfortunately, the purchase of PEACH and other anti-vaxxer disinformation on these communities, often isolated from government information campaigns and without access to the internet, means that a small but dangerous minority of families continue not to vaccinate. There is also a suspicious and conspiratorial attitude among elements of these communities towards the government and outsiders in general, which makes vaccination initiatives doubly difficult. Because many in these insular communities have large families with young, unvaccinated children living and studying in close proximity, even a tiny outbreak can spread very quickly.