Rockland County in New York is home to a large Orthodox Jewish community. An unvaccinated young Orthodox man was recently diagnosed with the first case of polio in the United States since 2013, according to the New York Department of Health.
According to the New York Jewish Week (https://www.jta.org/2022/07/21/ny/first-us-case-of-polio-in-nearly-a-decade-is-an-orthodox-jewish-man) “Local health officials … said they would begin a drive to increase vaccination against the potentially deadly virus. They said the victim was experiencing paralysis, a hallmark of the disease, and that he had not been vaccinated against it. …Polio is a highly contagious disease that can cause paralysis and even death. Before an effective vaccine was developed in the early 1950s, tens of thousands of Americans were infected annually; some wound up with permanent disabilities and a handful were consigned to iron lungs, machines that would help them breathe mechanically after their own bodies were too weakened to do so on their own. A 1952 outbreak [infected 58,000 people in the US, paralyzed more than 21,000 and] killed more than 3,000 people, mostly children.”
Speaking of the Rockland County case, CNN’s Brenda Goodman noted that (https://www.cnn.com/2022/07/21/health/new-york-polio/index.html) “About 1 in 4 infected people have flu-like symptoms including sore throat, fever, tiredness, nausea, headache and stomach pain. As many as 1 in 200 will develop more serious symptoms that include tingling and numbness in the legs, an infection of the brain or spinal cord, and paralysis, according to the US Centers for the Disease control and Prevention. There is no cure for polio. Treatment to address symptoms may include medication to relax muscles and heat and physical therapy to stimulate muscles. However, any paralysis caused by polio is permanent.”
According to Goodman, “Typically, people who catch polio can spread it to others for about two weeks. Officials said the individual is not expected to be contagious right now because they are past that window of time and have normal immune function. But others may have been exposed before the case was diagnosed.”
Unfortunately, many in the Orthodox community are anti-vax, and this includes Polio vaccines. The Forward’s Rina Shamilov reported that Rockland County has the largest Jewish population per capita of any county in the U.S., and has a childhood vaccination rate against polio of 42%, the lowest in New York State.
New York Jewish Week’s Jacob Henry reported that some Orthodox communities have dug in their heels against vaccinations. “The new polio case comes amid fierce backlash against vaccination in some Orthodox communities fueled by the COVID-19 pandemic and following a measles outbreak in Rockland County in 2018 and 2019 that was centered in the area’s Haredi Orthodox population. The county barred unvaccinated children from entering public places during the outbreak.”
While nationally more that 90% of school children are fully vaccinated, only “60% of Rockland County children have received all three doses of the polio vaccine by age 2, the recommended timeline for vaccination,” Henry noted.
Although Orthodox Jewish communities are not the only anti-vax enclaves, “the advent of COVID-19 vaccines have heightened tensions around vaccination in those communities and beyond, with inaccurate information circulating widely,” Jacob Henry reported. “Zev Zelenko, an Orthodox doctor who became a hero in some circles for promoting untested treatments and opposing vaccination, was based just outside of Rockland County.”
“Support for vaccination is deeply rooted in the Torah, Jewish law, and contemporary rulings of poskim(Jewish legal scholars), Nicole L. Muravsky, Grace M. Betesh and Rozalina G. McCoy wrote in a report titled “Religious Doctrine and Attitudes Toward Vaccination in Jewish Law” (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8549591/).
“Vaccine hesitancy belongs to a long tradition of anti-government libertarianism with deep roots in U.S. history,” David N. Meyers, Distinguished Professor of History at UCLA, recently wrote in The Forward (https://forward.com/opinion/511863/vaccine-hesitancy-haredi-jews-orthodox-hasidic-polio/).“In this regard, Haredi (Ultra-Orthodox Jewish) skeptics are quite similar to conservative Christians whose combination of divine faith and mistrust of government signals a potent new religious libertarianism that has left a deep imprint on the United States in the early 21st century. They are subject, as Nomi Stolzenberg and I argue in our book “American Shetl,” to a process of “unwitting assimilation,” according to which they draw on social norms in mainstream American society while maintaining steadfast resistance to overt forms of acculturation.”
Over the past 40 years or so,” Meyers wrote, “skeptics have resisted government regulations, triggered by a sensationalist 1982 documentary called ‘DPT: Vaccine Roulette,’ which implied that children risked grave deformity and illness if they were vaccinated against diphtheria, pertussis and tetanus. Later in the 1990s, an article by Dr. Andrew Wakefield appeared in the British medical journal The Lancet that asserted a link between the mumps, measles, and rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism, among other effects; it was widely discredited and eventually retracted.
“Since that time, the internet has served as an amplifier for claims of this sort and has led to rising numbers of requests for vaccine exemptions. Those seeking exemptions for both medical and religious reasons make up a curious coalition of opponents or skeptics including Christian Scientists, white conservative Evangelicals, crunchy, progressive parents in blue states, and Haredim, among others.”
The COVID pandemic, Donald Trump’s presidency, QAnon conspiracies, the spread of disinformation on social media, and an uptick in anti-government attitudes have all led to vaccine hesitancy, and worse, complete refusal to get vaccinated.
The Forward’s Shamilov, reporting from a pop-up vaccination clinic in Monsey, New York, wrote (https://forward.com/news/512089/polio-rockland-county-new-york-vaccine-orthodox-jew/): “While many in line seemed grateful to receive the potentially life-changing shot, the strain within the community was on clear display. A young Hasidic man outside the clinic who declined to give his name said that he thought the reports of a new polio case ‘is a hoax’ and dismissed warnings issued by local health officials. ‘Polio is a joke,’ he said. ‘No one had even had the virus in 50 years.’ (In fact, there have been close to 200 confirmed cases worldwide since 1975.)”