A few days ago, Rockland County, N.Y. declared a state of emergency after a measles outbreak in the county entered its 26th week. As a result, for thirty days, the county barred children under 18 and unvaccinated people from public places, including schools, parks and houses of worship. The comments in response to the news were predictable as the vaccination debate gained steam. Those against vaccinations reaffirmed their belief that it is their right, not the government’s, to decide whether or not their children receive vaccinations. Those who supported vaccinations touted the state of emergency as evidence that anti-vaccination sentiments are dangerous. As the media revealed more information, the public learned that the debate was missing a key element: ultra-Orthodox Jews were disproportionately affected by the outbreak. Furthermore, since the ultra-Orthodox community largely avoids technology, it only adds another layer to the impact that misinformation surrounding vaccinations can have on society, especially those without access to adequate resources surrounding vaccination education.
On the surface, it may seem as though ultra-Orthodox Jews are anti-vaccination. However, this is not the case: there is no overarching doctrine that tells ultra-Orthodox Jews that they should not vaccinate. Rather, many ultra-Orthodox Jews in the area don’t trust vaccines because of an organization called PEACH, or Parents Educating and Advocating for Children’s Health, which targets rabbis through magazines and hotlines. Because these Jews largely stay away from technology, they aren’t able to do the necessary research to rebut the claims of PEACH, who speak of unhealthy ingredients in vaccinations, the link between vaccines and autism, and other worrying material that sounds reasonable without the technology to refute those claims. Additionally, while it is true that the government has done some work to combat these misconceptions, for people who don’t speak English or don’t own a television, these words will likely not reach them. That’s why recent outbreaks have happened in tight-knit, non-English communities, such as the Somali-American community in Minnesota and Russian immigrants in Washington. It’s not a religious doctrine problem but an isolation and propaganda problem, which leads to the logical question: how can this be combatted?
While the question may be straightforward, the answer is, predictably, much more complicated. The measles outbreak is a symptom of a much larger problem in America: cultural isolation, and a lack of concerted action to try and break that barrier. Though it may not seem as though breaking through the language and technology barrier is necessary, these outbreaks and anti-vaccination sentiments demonstrate the consequences of isolation and no targeted effort to counter the misinformation that those communities receive.
Also, the media needs to do their part in identifying the cause of the problem as anti-vaccination networks and not the communities who are targeted. A recent New York Times article surrounding the outbreak describes the reaction a shopper had after an ultra-Orthodox Jew near her started coughing: “Another shopper standing next to him suddenly dropped the item she had been holding and clutched her child. ‘She was buying something, and she just threw it down,’ Ms. Wingate recalled. “She said, ‘Let’s go, let’s go! Jews don’t have shots!’” Perpetuating the idea that ultra-Orthodox Jewry as a whole is against vaccinations will only increase tensions between the community and the rest of society, the same being true for other tight-knit communities. With anti-Semitism and hate crimes, in general, are on the rise, the media should be doing all it can to emphasize that these few aren’t an accurate reflection of communities as a whole, as well as identifying the root of these beliefs, which often stem from sources outside of the community.
Madison Hahamy is a senior at Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy in Aurora, Ill. She is a Staff Writer for Fresh Ink for Teens.
Fresh Ink for Teens is an online magazine written by, and for, Jewish students from high schools around the world.