My call to Charedi communities: get your children vaccinated

In the wake of measles outbreaks in Orthodox communities in Israel, America and closer to home, in Hackney, Miriam Shaviv believes Charedi parents need to wise up - and get vaccinated

November 22, 2018 12:49

Children are in danger of dying in Stamford Hill, and we are all but ignoring it.

While exact numbers are unclear, the Orthodox community in Hackney has been hit by a measles outbreak. The potentially deadly illness appears to have been imported from Israel, where a baby has died and more than 1,400 cases have been diagnosed this year, heavily concentrated in a handful of Charedi areas. The outbreak has also spread to Charedi communities in New York and New Jersey, where 17 children have been infected.

Local rabbis, health authorities and doctors in all three countries have tried to contain the disease, calling for community members to get vaccinated, and providing additional vaccination clinics. Here in the UK, Hatzola, the volunteer medical service organisation, even took out newspaper ads warning that the complications of measles can be severe.

The efforts are valiant. But they will not turn the tide long-term, because they do not deal with the root of the problem, which is the dismissive Charedi attitude to science and secular knowledge.

The Charedi community is particularly vulnerable to measles because its vaccination levels are much lower than in the general population. The rate of MMR vaccination in heavily Charedi areas of Hackney was reportedly just 76 per cent in 2015-6, for example, compared to 85-89% across the rest of the borough. In some areas of Jerusalem, meanwhile, vaccination rates were even lower — just 55%.

Some of the blame for the low coverage may be due to practical issues. In families with several young children, where the mother does not drive, it may be difficult to get to the doctor. But other urgent issues do get dealt with. If they recognised it as a priority, so would getting their children vaccinated.

The real problem is that they know little of science, and are contemptuous of secular knowledge and education, believing that the outside world has little to teach or offer them.

Many Charedi schools are failing their students when it comes to secular education, giving them only rudimentary English and maths skills. Scientific education is — at very best —patchy. This means that they are ill-equipped to understand and evaluate concepts such as herd immunity or the way vaccines work. And they are left vulnerable to conspiracy theories, such as the debunked claim of a MMR-autism connection, and the motivations of Big Pharma.

Some elements of the American Charedi community have fallen hook, line and sinker for the “anti-vaccination” movement, encouraged by early support from three prominent rabbis from the prestigious Lakewood yeshivah. This philosophy is still being widely peddled in Charedi circles.

Given the speed at which measles is spreading internationally amongst Charedi communities, this has practical implications for us here too.

But the “fake news” problem goes deeper. Charedim are actively encouraged to believe that science is “only theories” and scientists are “anti-Torah”, because issues such as the Big Bang and evolution are perceived as a theological threat.

So is it any wonder that large swathes of the Charedi community have no faith in one of science’s greatest achievements— vaccinations?

The result is that lives are endangered, in their own community — and beyond. Of course, measles is not the only disease which could reappear. Uptake of the vaccine which covers polio, whooping cough and diptheria is also significantly lower amongst Stamford Hill Charedim than in the general population.

Perhaps because we have not seen these diseases for decades — thanks to vaccination — many people have no idea of how awful they are. They are regarded as vague threats, which by some fortuitous combination of the circumstances of modern life have disappeared. The ‘anti-vaxxers’ see the vaccination, not the epidemics, as the threat.

Here in the UK, we have watched elements of the Charedi community battle hard to educate their children with little to no state supervision, according to their own priorities. The measles outbreak shows why insisting that Charedi children receive a decent secular education is not “just” about giving children opportunities in life.

It can literally be a matter of life and death.

November 22, 2018 12:49

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