Special Briefing: Could Measles Poison Religious Freedom?

A nurse preparing the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine at the Rockland County Health Department in Haverstraw, Rockland County, New York. - A measles outbreak in the area has sickened scores of people and caused the county to bar unvaccinated minors in public places. (Photo by

Source Johannes EISELE / AFP/Getty

Why you should care

Because the future of public health is at stake.

This is an OZY Special Briefing, an extension of the Presidential Daily Brief. The Special Briefing tells you what you need to know about an important issue, individual or story that is making news. Each one serves up an interesting selection of facts, opinions, images and videos in order to catch you up and vault you ahead.

WHAT TO KNOW

What’s happening? The U.S. Centers for Disease Control has clocked the highest number of U.S. measles cases this year — 695 — since the disease was declared eradicated in 2000. Driving this disturbing trend is the refusal by some ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities in New York, who have been egged on by anti-vaxxers, to immunize their children. That’s contributed to a showdown between local health officials and the faithful, raising an important question amid the worsening epidemic: Where’s the line between guaranteeing religious freedom and ensuring public safety?

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A Jewish man and his three sons walk down a street in a Jewish quarter in Williamsburg Brooklyn in New York City on April 24, 2019. 

Source JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty

Why does it matter? State lawmakers in New York and New Jersey, as well as in Maine and Oregon are considering measures to end religious exemptions for vaccinations. That would place them among only three other states — California, West Virginia and Mississippi — that currently don’t offer any nonmedical opt-outs (17 states allow personal or moral exemptions). If those states succeed in enforcing mandatory immunizations, it might encourage others to follow suit. But both Arizona and West Virginia are heading the other direction by considering whether to expand religious exemptions or to write ones into their books. Meanwhile, at 2.2 percent, the religious and personal-belief exemption rate is still small — but it’s been growing the past three years. 

HOW TO THINK ABOUT IT

Showdown in New York. Declaring an emergency this month, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio ordered compulsory vaccinations in the affected neighborhoods — where four Brooklyn zip codes account for 83 percent of the city’s 390 cases — and threatened $1,000 fines against anyone who didn’t comply. That led a group of parents to sue the city’s health department, claiming their “religious beliefs are being disregarded.” But Rockland County, New York, which has reported about three dozen new cases in the past four weeks alone, went even further than New York City and banned unvaccinated minors from all public places. That ban was blocked by a judge and later revised to include only those diagnosed with measles. If New York state lawmakers succeed in enforcing stricter rules, it wouldn’t be the first legal crackdown on religious exemptions: That’s exactly how authorities in California responded to a December 2014 measles outbreak that began at Disneyland. 

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A child is vaccinated for measles and mumps.

Source Artyom GeodakyanTASS via Getty

But is it really about religion? Despite the belief among some of New York’s Orthodox Jews that vaccines — which contain traces of animal cells but are highly purified — violate Rabbinic law, no prominent religious authority has spoken out against them. Instead, experts say the highly insular nature of Hasidic communities lends itself to easy manipulation by opportunistic anti-vaxxers. They spread misinformation, such as claims that immunization causes autism, among people who are already deeply skeptical of modernity. “Being a religious Jew, you also get used to having a minority viewpoint,” a Hasidic community leader told Vox. Other tightknit religious communities have been hit with outbreaks in the past: In 2014, the Amish of Ohio accounted for more than half of the 383 U.S. measles cases that year. But many people, according to one state senator in New Jersey, which saw a 38 percent spike in religious exemptions over the past four years, tend to use that loophole for personal, nonreligious purposes.

Shots heard around the world. Faith-based refusals to vaccinate are not confined to the United States. After the Indonesian Ulama Council issued a fatwa against vaccines last summer, only 8 percent of children were found to have been immunized in the country’s only Sharia-enforcing state. In Japan, authorities attributed part of that country’s recent measles outbreak — the largest in a decade — to religious group Kyusei Shinkyo, whose members don’t believe in medicine. Interestingly, even these diverse communities eventually fell into line: The Indonesian Ulama Council walked back its fatwa, and Kyusei Shinkyo later apologized for its role in Japan’s outbreak. The World Health Organization (WHO) reported a 300 percent increase in measles cases in the first quarter of 2019; religious dissent aside, WHO suggests anti-vaxxers and social media are at least partly to blame for spikes in high- and middle-income countries.

WHAT TO READ

My Fellow Hassidic Jews Are Making a Terrible Mistake About Vaccinations, by Moshe Friedman in The New York Times 

“As infections linked to this outbreak spread as far as Michigan, I can’t help wondering what has made some of us dismiss basic science, embrace quackery and treat objective truths as if they are no more than suggestions.”

The Struggle to Fight Measles in Close-Knit Communities, by Sumathi Reddy in The Wall Street Journal 

“With the Amish, there appeared to be a lack of understanding of the risk of measles, she says. With the Somalis in Minnesota, it was a fear of the MMR vaccine causing autism, despite multiple studies proving it doesn’t, experts say. With Eastern Europeans in Washington state there is a distrust of government and its motives to get people vaccinated, say community members there.”

WHAT TO WATCH

Ultra-Orthodox Community Reacts to Measles Vaccine

“People are beginning to question, ‘Why should I subject my 3-year-old to toxins when it’s not going to protect him or her?’”

Watch on the Associated Press on YouTube:

When Religion and Vaccines Come Into Conflict

“Traditionally, we have not compelled people in this country to have health care that runs at odds with their personal religious beliefs. So I actually think the mayor is 100 percent right about his concern but has probably found a somewhat ham-fisted … way of addressing it.”

Watch on Currents News on YouTube:

WHAT TO SAY AT THE WATERCOOLER

Swear on it. While the requirements to secure religious or personal exemptions vary from state to state, some ask for a signed affidavit declaring belief. For instance, Delaware asks religious applicants to affirm that their “belief is sincere and meaningful and occupies a place in [their] life parallel to that filled by the orthodox belief in God.” But in 45 states parents can get their unvaccinated children into school on a conditional basis without an exemption by simply promising that they will be vaccinated.

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