The right to catch measles
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) there have been more than 1,000 documented cases of measles in the U.S. in 2019, higher than the number confirmed in 1994 when 963 cases were reported for the entire year.
The CDC is clear in their messaging that the vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) does not cause autism and is safe and effective for most people. “Measles is preventable and the way to end this outbreak is to ensure that all children and adults who can get vaccinated, do get vaccinated. Again, I want to reassure parents that vaccines are safe, they do not cause autism. The greater danger is the disease the vaccination prevents,” said CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield, M.D. “Your decision to vaccinate will protect your family’s health and your community’s well-being. CDC will continue working with public health responders across our nation to bring this outbreak to an end.”
The Hasidic communities in Rockland County and Brooklyn have suffered many cases, and five have been documented in Sullivan County. These cases have prompted the county legislature to unanimously pass a resolution requiring that all children and staff staying at summer camps in the county this year have documented evidence that they have been vaccinated for measles. Most of the people in summer camps in the county are Hasidic, and at least one of them objects to the public health order because it does not include a religious exception for avoiding a vaccine.
Human rights lawyer Michael Sussman has filed a lawsuit against the county on behalf of the unidentified father whose children will be going to summer camp. The lawsuit argues, among other things, that there is no evidence that the man’s children have measles or that the camp they will be attending will house children or others who have been exposed to measles. Further, by requiring the man’s children to be vaccinated, the county is infringing on the father and children’s rights to a religious exemption for vaccination.
The problem is that measles is extremely contagious and can be passed from one person to another from four days before the appearance of the characteristic rash, until four days after the rash. So the father’s religious right in this case runs up against the right of the rest of the campers to be reasonably free from fear of catching the measles from the father’s unvaccinated children.
Some high-profile members of the Hasidic community have been fanning the anti-vaccination flames. One is Rabbi Hillel Handler, who, according to an article in Jewish Telegraph Agency, told an audience at a rally in Brooklyn on June 4, “This is all being orchestrated by the drug companies, which are very close to the CDC. The doctors all march in lockstep with the CDC. The doctors don’t think they’re marching in lockstep. They don’t understand that the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, Georgia, is a totally corrupt swamp.”
Many Jewish voices come down on the opposite side of the issue. The Orthodox Jewish organization Agudath Israel of America, which operates summer camps in Sullivan County, said it “is deeply concerned” about a measles outbreak. “For that reason, countless rabbinical figures and leaders, including leading rabbis in the Agudath Israel movement and doctors serving these communities, have repeatedly encouraged vaccination in the strongest possible terms. Indeed, the overwhelming majority of children enrolled in Jewish schools are vaccinated.”
State legislators are currently wrestling with the religious exemption and whether to get rid of it in the case of MMR vaccinations. Gov. Cuomo recently said on radio station WAMC that he is not sure the legislature will be able to vote on the issue before this year’s session ends on June 19. “Fifty-fifty. But if it doesn’t happen, I think we put this state’s public health at risk. I respect the religious exemption. I hear the anti-vaxxers. But public health comes first. And I think it’s a mandate for public health that we pass that bill,” he said.
If the number of measles cases continues to climb, the health and financial impacts could be serious. Again from the CDC: “Outbreaks in New York City and Rockland County, New York have continued for nearly eight months. If these outbreaks continue through summer and fall, the United States may lose its measles elimination status. That loss would be a huge blow for the nation and erase the hard work done by all levels of public health. The measles elimination goal, first announced in 1966 and accomplished in 2000, was a monumental task. Before widespread use of the measles vaccine, an estimated 3 to 4 million people got measles each year in the United States, along with an estimated 400 to 500 deaths and 48,000 hospitalizations.”