- Vaccines have, over the course of several decades, eliminated many potentially deadly diseases. In their heyday, smallpox, polio, and yes, measles, killed or disabled thousands annually.
- Vaccines are studied extensively, and serious side effects, while concerning, are incredibly rare.
Are you with me still?
Here’s the thing: not everything that makes great public policy is right for every individual. Eminent medical thinker and Harvard professor Jerome Groopman, MD, illustrates this point elegantly in his book Your Medical Mind: How to Decide What is Right for You. For every 300 patients at risk of heart attack who take cholesterol-lowering statins, one death is prevented. In other words, in a group of 300 patients, 297 will be fine with or without the medication, two will have a heart attack and may die anyway, and one person who would otherwise have died will live.
On the other hand, 5% of patients will suffer some unpleasant side effects from the drug, including severe muscle and joint pain and gastrointestinal distress. In other words, patients are 15 times more likely to suffer side effects than they are to be helped by the drug. Is the 1-in-300 chance of life-saving efficacy reason enough to take it? If you’re treating thousands of patients, which translates into dozens of lives saved, the answer seems simple: of course you should prescribe it. But for every individual, the calculus may be different. He may prioritize his quality of life over a small potential reduction of risk. Again: not everything that makes great public policy is right for every individual.
Let’s get back to those pesky vaccines. Do vaccines save lives? You bet.
At the same time, no honest medical professional will tell you that vaccines are totally without risk. True, the risks are small, but in today’s world, so is the likelihood of permanent disability from contracting a vaccine-preventable disease (Fact: about 37,000 Americans die in car crashes every year, which is about 6 times the number of measles deaths reported annually at the height of the measles epidemics in the early 20th century. Cars are far more dangerous than measles).
Whether due to prior bad experiences, genetic factors, or concerns about vaccines’ safety, not every person will consider actively administering a potentially harmful shot to be in their best interests. Are people entitled to make that decision for themselves, if it impacts the community?
As with any issue in our lives, we examine the vaccine question through the lens of Torah. What level of risk is considered pikuach nefesh? What level of risk is a miut hamatzui? If there are two options that both entail some level of risk, is a proactive approach indicated, or shev v’al taaseh? Is someone obligated to give a vaccine that they consider risky in order to contribute to herd immunity?
Different poskim reach different conclusions with regard to these issues.
If a posek determines that vaccination is not mandated as reasonable hishtadlus, it is the height of arrogance to assume he did not consult experts or understand the issue before paskening. While no person is infallible, the least credit we can give talmidei chachamim is to trust that they are not less capable of understanding basic facts than your average layman.
If, after carefully examining the issue, discussing the topic with their doctor, and seeking guidance from a posek, a family concludes that CDC-scheduled vaccination is not what the Torah requires from them, they are not rodfim, idiots, or selfish. If they follow the Health Department’s exclusion guidelines and don’t send their kids to cough on your dinner, they may reasonably choose their own level of acceptable risk.
Can we find it in our hearts to understand that each person does his best to understand Hashem’s will, and that although we may not all agree on the correct interpretation of Hashem’s directives, each person must follow his conscience? That intelligent people may reach different conclusions based on the same data? That one person’s fears may not be the same as his neighbor’s?
There are strident, self-righteous voices on both sides of this debate. There are people on both sides who rely on dubious sources and scare tactics. By all means, point out logical flaws, proffer better arguments, and provide up-to-date statistics. But do it with respect for others’ intelligence and goodwill. Gentle discussion is far more productive than name-calling, which only closes people’s ears to your argument.
My friends, I beg you, whichever position you take, please see the “other” as a fellow Jew, searching and yearning to do what is right in Hashem’s eyes.
May we all make our choices wisely, with understanding and humility, and be zoche to the bracha of the Ultimate Healer: אִם–שָׁמוֹעַ תִּשְׁמַע לְקוֹל יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, וְהַיָּשָׁר בְּעֵינָיו תַּעֲשֶׂה, וְהַאֲזַנְתָּ לְמִצְוֺתָיו, וְשָׁמַרְתָּ כָּל–חֻקָּיו—כָּל–הַמַּחֲלָה אֲשֶׁר–שַׂמְתִּי בְמִצְרַיִם, לֹא–אָשִׂים עָלֶיךָ, כִּי אֲנִי יְהוָה, רֹפְאֶךָ.
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