Viral irrationalism

Mumps outbreak draws attention to a not-insignificant minority of parents who refuse to immunize their children.

February 8, 2010 22:18
3 minute read.
The mumps virus.

mumps 311.187. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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More than 300 people in Monsey and New Square, two hassidic enclaves north of New York City, have contracted the mumps, a disease spread by coughing and sneezing. Symptoms include fever, headache and swollen glands. Now the disease has reached haredi communities in Brooklyn and New Jersey.

Epidemiologists suspect the outbreak started in August in a Catskills summer camp with an 11-year-old boy who brought the mumps to the US from England. In London, the Health Protection Agency reported over 800 cases in 2009 – a significant uptick over the previous year.

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By age four, children ought to have been immunized against polio, diphtheria, tetanus, measles, mumps, rubella, chicken pox, whooping cough, and several other diseases which strike in childhood, yet can have deleterious life-long consequences.

Unfortunately, a not-insignificant minority of parents are refusing to immunize their children, fearing vaccines contain harmful side effects and/or out of conviction that Mother Nature would not approve.

The Jewish community, here and in the Diaspora, is not immune to such irrationalism. Some people have been  instructed by their clerics not to immunize; some have been swept up in the quagmire of medical quackery, while still others are convinced profiteering pharmaceutical companies are conspiring to promote unnecessary vaccines.

As a consequence, Israel’s Arab sector is, overall, better immunized than its Jewish population. Among Jews, unvaccinated children are thought to be found mostly among hassidim, back-to-nature secular bohemians, and their settler counterparts.

THE phenomenon of children not being immunized has increased in parallel with the growth of the Internet and the dissemination of junk science. Yet the medical community shares some of the blame.

In 1998, The Lancet, a prestigious British medical journal, published a study by Dr. Andrew Wakefield which linked vaccinations for measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) with autism. As The New York Times recently pointed out, the editors of the journal did not know that Wakefield had an interest in promoting a single measles vaccine and that he was being financed by a lawyer campaigning against the MMR combination vaccine. In any event, Wakefield’s sample group was only 12 children. 

As a consequence of the publicity generated by the Lancet article – only now retracted – some parents decided against the prevailing view of the medical community and did not immunize their children. Equally tragic, many parents of autistic children were made to feel responsible for their children’s disability. The emotional damage to these parents is incalculable.

Obviously, no vaccine is 100 percent safe or 100% effective. But scientists insist that there is no causal relationship between thimerosal-containing vaccines and autism.

On mumps, the blogosphere is full of rumors that even those vaccinated have been struck by the disease because there is an “unusual strain going around.” In fact, the mumps vaccine does not provide total protection; it does require a booster jab and failure to get this follow-up dose can leave a person exposed.

Not being immunized, however, leaves you 100% vulnerable.

Science is about probabilities. Case in point: Just because Israel was not hit by a swine flu pandemic does not mean that the Health Ministry was wrong to consider a worst-case scenario in its planning (even though it erred in its ultimate assessment and consequently overreacted). Immunizations against the regular flu and the swine flu are still indicated, say physicians.

IN NEW York City, which has one of the finest public health systems in the world, youngsters are not permitted to enter elementary school without proof of immunization. Unfortunately, proof of immunization is generally not required for admission by the various municipal school systems in this country.

Thankfully, most Israeli children are immunized through the Tipat Halav well-baby clinics. Under the health basket,  childhood vaccinations are completely free. Boosters are provided (free) by school nurses. But lack of money is no excuse for failing to immunize.

We urge the Health Ministry to consider requiring parents to provide a child’s pinkas hisunim – immunization record – when they register their youngsters for school. The enforcement tool would be simple: Any municipality or stream, including most of the haredi sector, which is found to admit unimmunized children, would face loss of funding from the national government.

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