Six months after California’s strict vaccine law took effect, a measles outbreak has infected 20 people, most of them members of the Los Angeles Orthodox community. The scourge has prompted the city’s Jewish institutions to take action to halt the disease from spreading further.
Rabbi Hershy Z. Ten, president of L.A.’s Bikur Cholim organization, has led the fight to push schools in the community to crack down on ensuring that their entire student bodies are properly vaccinated.
“The medical evidence is very clear that one should and must vaccinate any child that does not have a medical exclusion,” he told Hamodia. “This has serious consequences. Measles is dangerous for whoever has it, but children can fly all around the world and spread it to other communities.”
On Jan. 1, Bikur Cholim organized a teleconference call for 70 shuls, schools and other community organizations to discuss the issue with a panel including Rabbi Ten, Dr. Robert Adler, a pediatrician at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, Dr. Richard Pan, who was a key consultant on the new vaccination law, and Dean Erwin Chemerinsky of UC Irvine Law School, who addressed legal aspects of enforcing vaccination policies in institutions.
“For schools to be loose about this is a serious risk,” said Rabbi Ten. “There are, baruch Hashem, more and more children in yeshivos who have survived cancer or suffer from auto-immune diseases but are able to go to school. They cannot get vaccines because the live virus is dangerous for them. If, chas v’shalom, they would contract measles, it could be fatal.”
Dr. Jeffrey Gunzenhauser, interim health officer for the L.A. County Department of Public Health, said that none of the 18 cases identified in the city could provide proof of vaccination.
He said the first person was diagnosed in early December, followed by 16 cases in the last three weeks of 2016, and then one more case last week.
A measles outbreak in 2014 infected 145 people across the United States and dozens in Canada and Mexico. It led to the passage of a law in California requiring all children to be vaccinated unless doctors provide medical exemptions. The law took effect in July.
California is now one of three states that forbid children from opting out of vaccines because of religious or personal beliefs.
Health experts say the outbreak reveals the degree to which immunity against the disease has eroded — a problem that the new law will probably improve but not completely fix.
“It really speaks to what we’re so concerned about, which is parents making their decisions not to vaccinate their kids; and they can bring their kids into any setting and then contaminate everyone,” said Dr. Adler, who addressed the teleconference organized by Bikur Cholim.
Measles is one of the most contagious viruses in the world. If an infected person walks into a room, the virus can stay there for two hours after the person leaves. According to the World Health Organization, 15 people die every hour worldwide from measles.
Infected people develop a rash that can take weeks to show up, but they can transmit the virus to others before that.
Though the state’s new law makes vaccinations mandatory, schools are only required to check immunization status when children hit kindergarten or seventh grade. That means that children who went unvaccinated upon entering kindergarten in fall 2015 because their parents opted out could have continued in first grade this past fall without vaccines.
Children are supposed to receive two vaccines to protect against measles before they start kindergarten.
Rabbi Ten said that one of the issues addressed at the teleconference was whether schools are permitted to take on policies stricter than the law and require even those who enrolled before 2015 to be vaccinated. Dean Chemerinsky confirmed that to do so would be fully legal and it was the prerogative of school administrators to enact such rules.
“Our goal was to inform schools and Rabbanim about the issue and to encourage policies that will represent our responsibility to protect our health to the highest degree. We hope that they will take those courageous steps,” he said.
With reporting by Los Angeles Times/TNS
Updated Tuesday, January 24, 2017 at 5:39 pm