Dear friends, We are all acutely aware of the ongoing burden of measles in our communities in the United States, in Europe and in Eretz Yisroel. This outbreak was avoidable, and can be stopped.
My wife and I have, boruch Hashem, been blessed with children. We, like all parents, want to make the right choices for our children, both for their physical wellbeing and of course for their ruchniyus and their chinuch. All parents are flooded these days with information, some true and some false, about childrearing, and about choices that can affect our children’s health. This can make us worried and uncertain about what the right choices are.
I am a pediatrician, infectious diseases physician, epidemiologist and vaccine scientist. I work as Director of Epidemiology at the International Vaccine Access Center at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health, where I am Associate Professor. All my work and those of my colleagues is about evaluating vaccine effectiveness and vaccine safety and of finding ways to make vaccines available to those who need them. But I am writing this letter not in professional terms, but as a personal appeal to you and to our Torah leadership, as a parent and as a member of our community.
During my career I have treated children with measles. Some years ago I cared for a vulnerable child who tragically died of that disease. She was a sweet, gentle, lovely child, whose mother had died in childbirth, and this girl was working extra hard to feed and grow. She loved to play and interact and clearly thrived when given warmth and love. Her carers nurtured her, encouraged her and invested in her. But then she contracted measles and succumbed. That child was too young to have been vaccinated. She died because vaccination rates in her community were low, and this allowed the disease to spread. I have treated other children who also got measles and survived, but had spent time in hospital with complicated disease.
There are concerns in the community that measles vaccines (which in the US are given as measles-mumps-rubella vaccine) have severe side effects, for example autism. This claim is false. Measles vaccination does not cause autism. This false idea arose from a fabrication that was published in an important medical journal and the persons involved with it have been discredited. Many clinical studies in very large numbers of children have subsequently been undertaken and have shown that measles vaccination, and all the ingredients contained in the vaccine, are entirely safe. But the damage from that dvar sheker was huge. As people became afraid to vaccinate, this highly infectious disease gained a foothold in communities and spread again around the world. Measles is a disease that spreads rapidly and can cause severe disease, including in rare cases long term damage to the brain. The vaccine against measles is safe. Measles is one of the few diseases that in principle could be eradicated from the world, as was done with smallpox. Seeing its resurgence is tragic. Seeing it in the
Jewish community is shocking, and dare I say, it is a chilul Hashem. The Torah tells us “midvar sheker tirchak”! Strict compliance with the guidance of the Centers for Disease Control can help halt this epidemic. Ongoing attention to vaccination coverage in the community can prevent future outbreaks and avoidable tragedy.
There is mistrust among some segments of the frum community of science and scientific evidence, and vaccine science in particular is viewed as somehow being against Torah values or reflect a lack of bitachon. We should be mindful of the Rambam hil’ kiddush hachodesh 17:24 who says “Anything whose reason has been revealed, and whose truth has been confirmed with incontrovertible proof, is to be relied upon.” There is incontrovertible proof that measles vaccination is effective and that it is safe. Not vaccinating is not only against a Torah of truth, but simply and directly puts lives at risk.
When bnei yisroel suffered a mageifa in the midbar, Aharon HaCohen stood literally bein hameisim u’vein ha’chayim and the Torah tells us vate’atzar hamageifa, the plague was stopped (Bamidbar 17:13). Even HaKadosh Boruch Hu bichvodo uve’atzmo stood kivyachol as a barrier between machane yisroel and machane mitzrayim by yam suf. That protection, those ananei hakavod lit up the darkness that the bnei yisroel were in (vayaér es halaila). With these ideas in mind and with my deepest humility toward kovod torasam of our gedolim, I implore our Torah leadership to stand in the tavech – to enter the fray, and to say in a clear united and unambiguous voice, that we must, each and every one of us, take action to ensure vaccination of our children and communities, in accordance with the guidance of the Centers for Disease Control and unanimous global medical opinion. And to guide our communities that placing trust in medical opinion is not a pgam in bitachon or emunah, but precisely the opposite.
Rabbi Akiva rules chayecha kodmin lechayei chavereicha. In the context of vaccine preventable infectious diseases, the metzius is that our life and those of our children and fellow community members are intertwined, literally kol yisroel areivim. When I vaccinate my children I protect them and I also protect your children or grandchildren. And when you vaccinate your children you protect my children. The situation we are in is that chayecha are chayei chavereicha! At the end of hilchos matnos aniyim the Rambam says: “And to whom do the needy of yisroel raise their eyes?… Behold they raise their eyes to none other than their brothers!” A slightly surprising ending, one might have thought the Rambam would say that the needy should raise their eyes to Hashem, but no! The Rambam tells us that our foremost responsibility is to one another. We are all brothers, sisters, family. What we do affects all of us. If as a result of this epidemic we are to learn ahavas yisroel and true areivus, responsibility for one another, then it will have been an important but very painful lesson.
I conclude with an appeal that we all turn our hearts, our minds, our decisions and our trust to our Melekh Rofe Ne’eman ve’Rachaman, that we should all strive to be mekadesh Shmo ba’rabim; and with genuine concern and ahavas yisroel, belev ve’nefesh,
Dr Naor Bar-Zeev, MBBS (Hons) MPH MBiostat PhD FRACP FACTM AStat
Pediatrician, Infectious Diseases Physician, Statistical epidemiologist
Director of Epidemiology, International Vaccine Access Center
Associate Professor, Bloomberg School of Public Health, Johns Hopkins University