Chicken pox outbreak hits Brooklyn Hasidic neighborhood

The New York Health Department is investigating an outbreak of chicken pox in a Hasidic Jewish neighborhood of Brooklyn.

Some 75 cases of the varicella virus have been documented in Williamsburg since March, according to reports.

All of the cases involve children age 10 or under, and most have affected 3-year-olds, the Gothamist reported. Some 72 percent of the children affected did not receive a vaccination against the contagious illness, which is given in two phases: at 12 months and 4 years.

The city Health Department is advising all parents to have their children vaccinated against the virus.

The department distributed pamphlets on Sunday in both English and Yiddish about the outbreak in the neighborhood.

Hasidim are seen as averse to vaccines, but a Health Department representative told The Forward in 2014 that 96 percent of students at yeshivas in Brooklyn are vaccinated. The large Hasidic families sometimes delay vaccines, however, according to reports.

In 2013, Williamsburg and another Hasidic community in Brooklyn, Borough Park, faced a serious measlesoutbreak, with 58 cases reported from March to June — 30 in Williamsburg and 28 in Borough Park. Those cases involved adults or children who had no documentation of being vaccinated at the time of exposure because they refused or due to delays.

Vaccines and Jewish camps: What parents need to know

“All of a sudden, bottles of hand sanitizer appeared all over,” said Rabbi Jason Miller, looking back at 2009, when the swine flu craze reached Camp Maas, a Jewish summer camp in Ortonville, Michigan.

“Staff members would stand outside the dining hall with bottles,” he told JTA.

Aside from constant reminders about handwashing, the swine flu didn’t leave much of a mark on the camp. And now, similar worries about contagious diseases may soon be a distant memory.

Seven years later — in a time that has seen a reinvigorated debate over the validity and efficacy of vaccines — Tamarack Camps, one of the largest and oldest Jewish camp systems in the country (of which Camp Maas, Miller’s former employer, is a part), now has a formalized vaccine policy.

“Given the overriding value of Pikuach Nefesh (saving a life) … we are requiring that all campers, staff, artists-in-residence, volunteers, doctors, nurses and their families planning to attend/participate in any Tamarack Camps programs be immunized as outlined,” according to an email sent Dec. 30 and signed by multiple Tamarack program directors.

The announcement stipulated that the camp’s attendees must receive the standard list of vaccines recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Center for Disease Control, which includes shots for chicken pox, meningitis and several others. The policy will be phased in over two years beginning this summer.

Through the email, Tamarack Camps — comprised of a main campus and Camp Maas, along with a few “outpost” camps and travel programs — joined other Jewish camps across the country that have formalized vaccine policies requiring staff and campers to be immunized according to state requirements. The policies only allow campers to forego the vaccines for medical reasons (such as an allergy).

Other Jewish camps with such policies include all those under the auspices of the Union for Reform Judaism and the Conservative movement’s Ramah umbrella, as well as many independent and specialized camps.

Some Jewish camps, however, stick to state vaccination laws, many allowing for personal or religious exemptions. California, which experienced a widely publicized measles outbreak at Disneyland in early 2015, joined West Virginia and Mississippi as one of only three states that outlaw personal or religious vaccine exemptions after passing a contested bill last summer. The vaccination rate among children in California hasalready risen even though the new law does not go into effect until July.

Vaccines are generally accepted as a common-sense medical practice across most of the spectrum of religious affiliation in the Jewish community. However, some Orthodox communities have experienced outbreaks of preventable diseases, such as the whooping cough, in recent years. In 2014, the prominent Orthodox Rabbi Shmuel Kamenetzky called vaccines a “hoax.” JTA found last year that a range of private Jewish day schools had low student vaccination rates due to the personal or religious exemption loopholes.

Cliff Nerwen, chair of the National Ramah Medical Committee, estimates that at least one family each year tries to send an unvaccinated camper to each of Ramah’s nine sleepaway camps.

“I graciously tell them I respect their opinions, but in the light of the larger public health community, it’s a risk we’re not willing to take,” Nerwen said.

In a sign of the times, Tamarack Camps’ announcement immediately started an online dispute. Dr. David Brownstein, the medical director of the Center for Holistic Medicine in West Bloomfield, Michigan — the upscale heart of Detroit’s Jewish community  — called the policy “draconian” in a blog post the next day.

“Perhaps Camp Tamarack is unaware that over $3 billion has been awarded by the Federal Government to children and adults injured by vaccines,” Brownstein wrote. “I would like to see where Jewish law says it is safe to inject a neurotoxin into a baby or any living being.”

Two days later, Dr. Peter Lipson, an internal medicine specialist who also practices in the West Bloomfield area, called Brownstein’s post “dangerous” in a Forbes article.

“Dr. Brownstein is wrong on the facts. That’s not my opinion,” Lipson wrote. “What is my opinion is that doctors like him are a threat to public health.”

Tamarack Camps’ decision also caused a bit of a stir in and around the metro Detroit Jewish community. Dr. Kathy Erlich, a Jewish pediatrician against strict vaccine laws who worked in the camp’s medical clinic, resigned. And Miller, who wrote about Tamarack’s decision for Time, said at least one family left the camp over the policy.

“Of course there are parents out there that have chosen not to vaccinate their children, and I think they always assume that either their personal or their religious reasons for not vaccinating will be accepted,” said Paul Reichenbach, the Union of Reform Judaism’s director of camp and Israel programs.

The URJ camp system issued a formalized vaccine policy in 2008.

“It came as a surprise to some people,” Reichenbach said.

Still, Lipson, who covers science and medicine for Forbes, told JTA that parents of prospective campers should not lose sleep over the medical exemption rule. Some children have legitimate medical reasons to skip a certain vaccine — and they depend on the immunity of the other campers around them even more.

As to whether or not parents should scrutinize camps that allow non-medical exemptions, Lipson said the issue is worth talking about.

“Because this is such a new question, I’m just starting to ask [it] myself,” he said. “Personal belief exemptions are a nightmare.”

Lipson pointed out that it can be tough for camps to hold their ground against parents on the vaccine issue because, while everyone has to go to school, they’re not required to attend summer camp.

That’s partly why he was impressed with Tamarack Camps’ decision to publicly state a formal position. At Camp Tamakwa in Ontario, where Lipson volunteers, campers must hand in immunization forms, but he isn’t aware of a formal written camp policy.

“I was actually kind of surprised that [Tamarack] did it,” Lipson said. “You put a bunch of Jews in a room, and what are the odds you’re going to get a consensus?”

No shots, no school: How SB 277 impacts local Jewish schools

On June 30, Senate Bill 277 was signed into law. The California bill puts an end to religious and personal belief exemptions for childhood vaccinations, and requires that all children enrolled in school or day care be immunized against 10 diseases, including measles, mumps, whooping cough (pertussis) and chickenpox. (Medical exemptions are still allowed, and there are time-limited accommodations for children with existing religious or personal belief exemptions.) The law will not apply to students who are homeschooled or enrolled in an independent study program. Although there is a commonly held belief that private schools are not subject to these regulations, the law applies to all day-care centers and K-12 schools, including Jewish schools. 

Temple Beth Hillel’s Rabbi Sarah Hronsky, for one, is pleased with the new legislation. She said she considers vaccination “a Jewish thing philosophically, because it preserves and saves a life. This value is called pikuach nefesh.” 

Added Hronsky: “[SB 277] gives private schools a leg to stand on, whereas in the past, it was really hard to enforce. Even though we may be really pushing that it’s a good thing for the sake of the community,” the school couldn’t force anyone to vaccinate their child. But, if a student in the Valley Village temple’s early childhood program or day school had a personal or religious belief exemption, the school, per state mandate, did require them to consult with a pediatrician. That said, the culture among Temple Beth Hillel families is to vaccinate; for the most part, that is the culture at L.A.-area Jewish schools. 

That also is largely the case for L.A.-area schools overall. Los Angeles County has long had some of the highest vaccination rates in the state: Upward of 98 percent of kindergartners this past school year had all required immunizations, according to the California Department of Public Health. In Santa Cruz County, by comparison, the number was closer to 90 percent. 

Although there are L.A. neighborhoods and individual schools where the rates are not nearly as high, at the Jewish schools we contacted in addition to Temple Beth Hillel (Silverlake Independent Jewish Community Center, de Toledo High School, Kehillat Israel, Kadima Day School, Weizmann Day School, Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School and Wise School), administrators could count on one hand the number of students with personal belief or religious exemptions on file.

This means that when the legislation goes into effect on July 1 of next year, it will pretty much be business as usual at local Jewish schools. Nevertheless, the Silverlake Independent Jewish Community Center (SIJCC) preschool, where 110 children are enrolled, will begin preparing parents for the legal change now.

“It will be part of our discussion at the new family orientation” in advance of the start of school in September, said Elizabeth McGrath Schwandt, director of early childhood education at the school. “Although we have these unbelievably high compliance rates, it doesn’t mean it’s not a difficult or fraught issue for our families. We want to make sure people have a safe and open forum.

“We actually have a current parent who was one of the leading advocates of that legislation. She’s going to be available to help answer any questions that come up,” she said.

That parent is Renee Dubie-van Beever. Although she is an attorney, Dubie-van Beever said her work on behalf of Vaccinate California was “95 percent parent, 5 percent attorney.” 

“My feeling is, we always need to take up for the weakest among us: kids too young to be vaccinated, the immuno-compromised,” she said. “At the school, by and large, everyone is on the same page as to why this is so important. There is a real sense of community, that we all put in for the greater good. When you branch out to the wider community, that seems to fall away.”

At de Toledo High School (formerly New Community Jewish High School) in West Hills, two of the 400 students enrolled last year had exemptions, and none of the incoming ninth-graders who have turned in paperwork thus far do. The only change, said school principal Ellen Howard, is: “Once the law becomes effective, if we get a new student who wants to submit a personal affidavit, we can’t take it. … I don’t see [SB 277] as anything that will impact enrollment because of our history of not having large numbers of exemptions for personal beliefs.”

At Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades, where “the passion is for vaccinating,” according to Julie Dubron, director of the early childhood center, “The effect of [SB 277] will be reassuring to some parents. [They] will feel better knowing every other child in their school is also immunized, whereas now there could be some ambiguity.” 

“I’m certain there are people who feel like their rights are being taken away,” Hronsky said. “To that I would say we are obligated. For the sake of those who cannot be protected, we stand as a community.” 

Or, as she wrote in a recent temple newsletter, “For Jews, we live in this world as a ‘we’ not an ‘I.’ ” 

California bill to limit vaccine exemptions goes to governor

California lawmakers on Monday sent Governor Jerry Brown a bill to substantially limit vaccine exemptions for school children in the most populous U.S. state, following last year's measles outbreak at Disneyland that sickened more than 100 people.

The bill, which would make California the third state to eliminate religious and other personal vaccine exemptions, passed the state Senate on a vote of 24-14 in its final form, which included amendments that would give some parents years to comply and make it easier for parents to obtain medical exemptions from doctors.

Brown, a Democrat, who had in the past opposed dropping the religious exemption, said through a spokesman Monday he would give the bill careful consideration.

“The Governor believes that vaccinations are profoundly important and a major public health benefit and this bill will be closely considered,” Evan Westrup, Brown's press secretary, said in a statement.

The measure sparked angry opposition from some religious conservatives and from parents who are worried about the side effects of vaccinations.

In recent years, vaccination rates at many California schools have plummeted as parents, some of whom fear a now debunked link between vaccines and autism, have declined to inoculate their children.

The legislation was prompted by a measles outbreak last December traced to the Disneyland theme park in Southern California.

Most children are vaccinated, but at some schools, many in affluent and liberal communities, vaccination rates are well below the 92 percent level needed to maintain group immunity that can protect those who are not vaccinated or have weak immune systems.

The bill was amended in the Assembly last week to give children with existing exemptions more time before they must be vaccinated against such diseases as measles, polio and pertussis. Another amendment allowed doctors to consider family history when deciding whether to grant children medical exemptions from vaccinations.

The Senate vote on Monday was a concurrence vote, in which senators gave the bill final approval by accepting those assembly amendments.

Under the bill, personal beliefs exemptions filed before Jan. 1, 2016, would remain in effect until children complete their “grade spans,” defined as the years from birth to preschool, kindergarten to sixth grade, and seventh through 12th grades.

Children with medical exemptions would not be affected.

In testimony on the bill, opponents said they feared their children would be harmed and that the bill would deny them their right to public education.

California Senate votes to end beliefs waiver for school vaccinations

California parents who do not vaccinate their children would have to home-school them under a bill passed Thursday by the state Senate, the latest move in a battle between public health officials and “anti-vaxxers” who fear vaccines are dangerous.

The bill, which eliminates the so-called personal beliefs exemption allowing parents to forego vaccinations if opposed to them for any reason, was introduced after a measles outbreak at Disneyland last year that sickened more than 100 people.

“The personal beliefs exemption is endangering the public,” said Democratic state Senator Richard Pan, a pediatrician and co-author of the bill. The measure still allows children to attend school without vaccinations for medical reasons.

In recent years, vaccination rates at many California schools have plummeted as parents, some of whom fear a link between vaccines and autism, have declined to inoculate their children against such diseases as polio and measles.

Although the vast majority of children are vaccinated, at some schools, many in affluent, liberal enclaves, vaccination rates are well below the 92 percent needed to maintain the group immunity required to protect those who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons or who have weak immune systems.

“The alarming increase in unvaccinated students places everyone at risk of contracting potentially fatal diseases,” said state Senator Ben Allen, a Democrat from Santa Monica, whose father suffered from polio.

Parents who oppose mandatory vaccinations packed committee hearings to testify against the bill, which stalled at one point but was then revived.

Thursday's vote came after an hour of heated discussion among senators, who voted 25-10, mostly along party lines, to support it.

“It comes down to what do we as a society trade when we mandate that somebody has to do something in order to protect somebody else,” said Senate Republican leader Robert Huff, adding that his family members are vaccinated. The measles outbreak did not rise “to the level where we have to give up personal freedom.”

But Allen said that 400 people die of measles every day in other parts of the world.

“One child who is not immunized is not a big deal,” he said. “But more and more children not receiving vaccines allows for the potential spread of diseases.”

Under the bill, which still must be approved by the Assembly, unvaccinated children who do not have a medical exemption would have to study at home or in organized, private home-schooling groups.

California lawmakers seek to end ‘personal belief’ vaccine exemptions

Responding to an outbreak of measles that has infected more than 100 people, two California lawmakers said on Wednesday they would introduce legislation to end the right of parents in the state to exempt their children from school vaccinations based on personal beliefs.

California public health officials say 92 people have been diagnosed with measles in the state, many of them linked to an outbreak that they believe began when an infected person from outside the country visited Disneyland in late December.

More than a dozen other cases have been confirmed in 19 other U.S. states and Mexico, renewing a debate over the so-called anti-vaccination movement in which fears about potential side effects of vaccines, fueled by now-debunked science, have led a small minority of parents to refuse to allow their children to be vaccinated.

“The high number of unvaccinated students is jeopardizing public health not only in schools but in the broader community. We need to take steps to keep our schools safe and our students healthy,” state Senator Ben Allen said in a written statement announcing the legislation he is co-sponsoring with fellow Democrat Richard Pan.

The measure would make California the 33rd state to bar parents from opting out of vaccinations based on personal beliefs.

Also on Wednesday, a top Los Angeles County health official said that a total of 21 cases have been recorded in the county but that after the initial wave of reports, the number has fallen to four in the latest two-week period.

“We're getting to a number of cases that’s manageable, and I'm hopeful that within weeks or a couple of months we will be able to turn the corner on this particular outbreak,” Interim Health Officer Dr. Jeffrey Gunzenhauser told a press conference, although he cautioned that a lag in reporting could still add a few more cases.

A day care center at a high school in the Los Angeles suburb of Santa Monica closed earlier this week and more than a dozen infants placed under a three-week quarantine after a baby enrolled in the program was diagnosed with measles.

Measles was declared eliminated in the United States in 2000 after decades of intensive childhood vaccine efforts. But last year the nation had its highest number of measles cases in two decades.

Most people recover from measles within a few weeks, although it can be fatal in some cases.

Why I have vaccinated my daughters

I have two girls, ages three and eleven. My daughters have gotten every last vaccine I can possibly get for them. I have done the same for myself. 

Why? Because quite simply, vaccines are one of the most amazing medical discoveries we humans have ever pulled off. Because I don't want my daughters to lose their hearing from measles. Because hepatitis b kills 780,000 people each year and I don't want my daughters to be part of those awful numbers.  Because polio isn't quite gone from the planet. Because the flu made two of my dear friends so sick I literally begged them over the phone to run to an ER. Because there is no cure or treatment for tetanus. Because whooping cough can choke a child to death and break an adult's ribs. Because a friend got chicken pox when babysitting and spent two weeks miserably in bed when she was twenty-four. She still has the scars on her face, by the way. 


Sometimes these actual facts about vaccines get lost. Open nearly any modern American publication and seek out information on the subject of parenting. You will inevitably come across an article implying that vaccines are death on a platter. Vaccines, we are told, cause autism. They have toxins. They are used for diseases that are not only not life threatening but actually fun. 


None of these allegations are true. Vaccines have been repeatedly studied. And studied. And studied. And studied. Scroll down for a list of over a hundred studies showing no link between vaccines and autism. We have autism because of many reasons including the fact that kids who used to be diagnosed as mentally retarded are now called autistic. Friends who are special education teachers (including my late mom) now tell me that no one is labeled mentally retarded. Autism is where we put the social services so that's where we put our kids. 

Vaccines do not contain toxins any more than your own body does because formaldehyde is a byproduct of your basic metabolic processes.

I'm in my forties. When I was attending the Hebrew Academy of the Five Towns and Rockaway in the 1970's we didn't have as many vaccines. We had hib instead. We had about a thousand needless deaths a year. I had the chicken pox when I was seven. I was in agony and so was my little brother. To this day, the smell of calomine lotion evokes a peculiarly ugly memory in my brain and an urge to itch. We didn't really have flu shots. We had the flu. I had it in my teens. I lost five pounds in a week and remember the odd happiness when I could finally sit up. 

My daughters get the shots. They will grow up in a world where girls will get the Gardasil shots instead of cervical cancer or genital warts. In 2007, the Aussies wisely decided to provide the shots for all their girls free of charge. Over seventy percent of Aussie girls get the shots. A recent study found the results: a sixty-one percent decrease in the rate of genital warts. This evil little disease causes all kinds of head and neck cancers so they should see a corresponding reduction there as well in the near future. Only thirty-eight percent of all American girls get the vaccine.

Please explain to me again why it is better to get cancer than to get three shots. Because it is one question I am grateful I will never have to answer when talking to my girls.

Nearly all doctors, all peds and all scientists are not engaged in a massive conspiracy to poison our kids with vaccines. Neither I am. I don't have a multi-million dollar house like a certain anti-vax doctor in Chicago who runs one of the most profitable websites on the net. I don't have a mansion like Andrew Wakefield who helped start a needless epidemic of measles in the UK. 

I am lucky. My daughters will not be one of the children growing up in India, who does not have access to the MMR shot so they get one of the most contagious diseases in the world. According to the UN sponsored organization Shot@Life, an organization dedicated to providing access to four life saving vaccines (and an organization I proudly volunteer with), hundreds of thousands of children die each year just from lack of access to vaccines that we take for granted here in the United States.

So I vaccinate. I vaccinate because I really am lucky. I vaccinate so that my girls will get a flu shot instead of two weeks in bed from the flu. I vaccinate so that the neighbor with the compromised immune system doesn't get hepatitis b. I vaccinate so that the neighbor with the newborn doesn't have to worry that her baby will get brain damaged from a bout of pertussis or that SSPE from the measles.

I vaccinate because this is the world we all need and deserve: one where all of us benefit from one of modern medicine’s best achievements.

— Stacy Mintzer Herlihy is a freelance writer based in New Jersey. Her work has appeared in publications such as USA Today and the Newark Star Ledger. She is the co-author of Your Baby's Best Shot: Why Vaccines are Safe and Save Lives (Roman & Littlefield 2012 paperback edition 2015).