Sisterhood Blog

Why Is Anti-Vac the New Black?

By Elissa Strauss

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I am pro-vaccine. Very. And I think you should be, too, as a parent, a Jew and a fellow citizen.

For this reason, I find myself increasingly baffled by the anti-vaccine movement that seems to be gaining steam even as study after study discredits any harmful side effects from vaccinations and children — babies! — unnecessarily die, which I am sure we can all agree on being pretty much the worst thing ever. (Quickly, vaccinations don’t just protect, or not protect your child, but also protect other people’s young children because of a thing called herd immunity.)

In a recent oped for the Los Angeles Times, professor and doctor Nina Shapiro writes about how in wealthy enclaves in cities around the country, parents are increasingly forgoing vaccinations. At a Malibu elementary school, just 58% of kindergartners had all their vaccinations, and some private schools in California report rates less than 20%. As Shapiro put it: “Yes, that’s right: Parents are willingly paying up to $25,000 a year to schools at which fewer than 1 in 5 kindergartners has been immunized against the pathogens causing such life-threatening illnesses as measles, polio, meningitis and pertussis (more commonly known as whooping cough).” Furthermore, a recent report for the Center for Disease Control shows that there continues to be a nationwide rise in children who aren’t vaccinated, and anti-vac’s most famous face, Jenny McCarthy, just landed a spot on “The View.”

Looks like anti-vac is officially the new black.

Among Jews, there seems to be a resistance to vaccination particularly in the Orthodox community as well as the bohemian, alternative one, both here and in Israel. In the past few years there have been a number of [measles and mumps outbreaks] (http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2013/06/13/a-maddening-case-of-the-measles-in-orthodox-jewish-brooklyn.html) in Orthodox Brooklyn, which health experts attribute to a failure to vaccinate. As for the bohemians, the best example is actress, writer, Attachment Parenting devotee and Kveller columnist Mayim Bialik who has mostly resisted discussing why she didn’t vaccinate her children, explaining only that she has done research and believes that today’s recommended vaccinations aren’t safe.

Rabbi Goldie Miligram has a piece about the Jewish thinking on vaccinations on the Web site of her organization Reclaiming Judaism. In it she comes out pro-vaccination, making the claim that Judaism “across the board, within every denomination, aspires to life for those born into this world.”

In Deuteronomy (Devarim) 4:15 we learn: V’nishmartem m’ode l’nafshoteikhem, “Greatly guard your souls,” which has long been read in Jewish bioethics as a duty to protect ourselves from disease. Reb Nachman of Breslov, who died in 1810 of tuberculosis long before treatment and a vaccine had been identified in the second half of the twentieth century, wrote: “One must be very very careful about the health of children…One must inoculate every baby against smallpox before one-fourth (3 months) of the year, because if not, it is like spilling blood (murder).” (Kuntres Hanhagot Yesharot)

In recent years, rabbis have contended with the question of whether Jewish day schools can refuse admission to the unvaccinated, and the answer, across denominations, is yes. They believe that schools not only have a right, but an obligation to require vaccinations because of the principles of following the law of the land and pikuach nefesh, or saving as many lives as possible.

The anti-vaccination movement is held-up by the belief that we, as individuals, know better than science and law. Wealthy people, who generally have to play by fewer rules than the hoi polloi, seem to be more susceptible to this thinking and are therefore eschewing vaccinations. But Jewish tradition knows better and encourages us away from this individualistic way of thinking to a more communal approach. Can we please all listen?

Elissa Strauss, a lead blogger for the Sisterhood, also writes about gender and culture for places like the New York Times, Jezebel and Salon. Follow her on Twitter @elissaavery.


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