As leaders of medical schools operated under Jewish auspices, we feel it is essential to make our views known concerning a recent public health issue. Opponents of vaccinations have swayed parents in some Jewish communities to refuse immunizations for their children. This has resulted in two of the largest measles outbreaks in New York’s recent history. The opposition to vaccines is not confined to the Jewish community but represents part of an ill-informed nationwide movement opposed to vaccines.
As of last week, there were 24 confirmed cases of measles in the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Williamsburg and Boro Park and an additional 75 people in Rockland County had contracted measles as well. Additional cases are currently under investigation, and the number is expected to continue rising.
Childhood vaccines preserve health, prevent disease and save lives. Proper vaccination is an essential public health strategy and parents must be made aware of the scientific research on this critical issue.
Members of our faculty have previously reported, in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM 2012 367:1704-1713), the ability of the childhood viral disease mumps to spread rapidly among children in the close quarters of yeshiva study halls or Beit Midrash. Similarly, measles seems to thrive in these conditions.
Measles is a viral disease that can prevented by vaccination. The myth that measles vaccines are associated with autism has been thoroughly debunked by scientific research. Twelve years after publishing a study that turned some parents against the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine because of an implied link between vaccinations and autism, the prestigious British medical journal, The Lancet, retracted the paper. In a statement published on February 2, 2010, the British medical journal editors said that it is now clear that “several elements” of a 1998 paper published by Dr. Andrew Wakefield and his colleagues (Lancet 1998;351:637–41) “are incorrect, contrary to the findings of an earlier investigation.” Wakefield’s UK medical license was subsequently revoked as a result of unethical behavior, misconduct and fraud.
Measles cannot be dismissed as a simple “childhood viral disease.” It can be a serious illness in all age groups. Children younger than five years of age and adults older than 20 years of age are more likely to suffer from measles complications. People who experience severe complications, may need to be hospitalized and could die. Up to one out of every 20 children with measles contracts pneumonia, the most common cause of childhood death from measles. About one child out of every 1,000 who get measles will develop encephalitis (swelling of the brain) that can lead to convulsions and can leave the child deaf or with intellectual disability. For every 1,000 children with measles, one or two will die from it. Measles may cause pregnant woman to give birth prematurely, or have a low-birth-weight baby. Subacute sclerosing panencephalitis (SSPE) is a rare fatal disease that results from a measles virus infection acquired earlier in life. SSPE generally develops 7 to 10 years after a person has measles, even though the person seems to have fully recovered. The risk of developing SSPE may be higher for children who get measles before they are two years of age.
Several Jewish legal authorities have weighed in on the issue of requiring children to have vaccines or of allowing religious exemptions for school children to avoid vaccination. Recently, in response to the outbreak of measles in the United States and Israel, many have called for universal vaccination. However, there still appears to be some resistance to requiring universal vaccination. One prior Jewish legal opinion written three years ago justified refusing vaccines on the grounds that the risks of contracting measles were low. We believed then as has been now unfortunately demonstrated that these medical facts were in error.
Childhood vaccination against preventable infectious disease is one of medicine’s great triumphs. We support the proper use of childhood vaccination as a crucial technique of preventive medicine and decry those who make misrepresentations to parents regarding this important issue.
New York Medical College, Valhalla, NY
Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine, Harlem, NY
Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine, Middletown, NY
Touro University California, College of Osteopathic Medicine Vallejo, CA
Touro University Nevada, College of Osteopathic Medicine Henderson, NV