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Rabbis agree: Get vaccinated, already

Despite a massive campaign by New York health officials urging people to vaccinate their children, the measles outbreak continues to worsen here in New York and nationally.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported this week that 880 new cases in 24 states have been identified. Most of those cases are in New York, with the Empire State’s total now standing at more than 725.

That’s the highest number of infections in a quarter-century, and the problem shows no signs of abating anytime soon. Indeed, if the anti-vaccine rally held last week in Rockland County is any indication, the rash of cases will only continue to grow.

Sadly, the event attracted hundreds of attendees and featured speaker after speaker fervently spreading anti-vaccine propaganda.

As the chief executive officer of Chai Lifeline, North America’s largest Jewish children’s health-support network, I feel obliged to push back against such cavalier, irresponsible and dangerous attitudes about vaccines.

The fact is that numerous rigorous scientific studies have debunked the supposed harms associated with vaccines. Leading doctors and medical experts have repeatedly and almost unanimously come out in support of vaccinations. Pseudoscientific opposition persists only in the fervid, conspiratorial fringes.

Likewise, there is no religious case against vaccination. In the Jewish community, nearly all rabbis, across the religious spectrum, have ruled in favor of, and strongly encouraged, vaccinating children, with many calling it a parental obligation. Thankfully, the overwhelming majority of American Jews has followed this advice.

And yet a highly contagious disease, declared eliminated in 2000 in the US by the CDC, is now making a comeback, due to the actions, or inaction, of a select few. These vaccination opponents claim that the measles doesn’t pose a serious threat. They argue that the consequences of the virus are minimal. Some parents go so far as to intentionally expose their children to the virus through “measles parties,” with the misguided belief that such exposure will build immunity.

This is not only utter nonsense; it can be deadly. Measles is among the most contagious of diseases. The virus can hover in still indoor air for up to two hours after someone infected has coughed or sneezed. Up to 90 percent of people who are exposed will get the measles if they are not immunized.

That is why I must speak out on behalf of those whose voices can’t be or aren’t being considered. These belong to the most vulnerable in our community — immunocompromised infants and children who are too young or too sick to be vaccinated. With weaker immune systems — due to a variety of factors such as chemotherapy, genetic disorders or organ transplants — these children are at the greatest risk.

For them, measles isn’t just an uncomfortable illness; it can be fatal. Indeed, research has shown that for the immunocompromised population, the complication and death rates due to measles exposure are significantly higher, and recovery times much longer.

When it comes to highly transmittable diseases like the measles, it is critical for the greatest number of people possible to vaccinate their children, to achieve “herd immunity” and keep the entire population safe. The weakest and most susceptible among us rely on the herd, or the community, to vaccinate, so they can be protected from life-threatening diseases. These children count on us with their lives.

The Talmud teaches that “whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.” All of us, Jews and gentiles alike, must heed these words. Our future — the lives of our children — is at stake.

Rabbi Simcha Scholar is chief executive officer of the New York-based Chai Lifeline.

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