A few weeks ago, I thought I should check if I needed a measles vaccine.
Measles, once a childhood scourge, has become a viral infection on my social media feeds — not to mention in real life, too — and somewhat of a personal obsession. I didn’t really think I needed to be vaccinated. But I live in Rockland County, and measles is having a bit of a renaissance here.
First, let me categorically state that my mom is super diligent, and I know without question that I must have had a vaccine when I was a kid. I vividly remember the pain, itch, and remaining scar of the smallpox vaccine; the tiny multiple tines of the tuberculosis one; the sweet sugar syrup for polio; and the flyers they sent home from school about getting a newfangled shot against rubella — German measles — when I was in third grade. So I’m sure that at some point, good ol’ garden-variety measles had been taken care of.
But the local measles hysteria was reaching a fever pitch. All the community board groups on Facebook have been filled with anti-vaxxers — religious and not — insisting on their right to infect me and mine, facing off against the pro-vaccine anti-Semites who have decided that measles is just one more awful thing that charedi Jews have brought to the world.
In the midst of this, I learned that those of us born in the 1960s just might want to get checked for immunity. Since I live near a measles hotspot, I asked my doctor. She agreed. When the results of my titer test popped up in the online app the medical practice uses for communications, it bore a rather blunt note at the top:
You need to get vaccinated.
I was a bit shocked. I hadn’t really thought I was going to need it. I imagined I was being kind of snarky, having an over-the-top overreaction to the escalating numbers of measles cases so close to where I live. But clearly, time was up on my resistance.
I got the vaccine. My arm was sore. I moved on. I now don’t have to worry about contracting measles while kosher food shopping in the Orthodox areas of the county where the disease is most prevalent, having gained a foothold late last year after visitors to Israel brought back the unwelcome souvenir. Currently, the number of cases in Rockland County stands at 275 confirmed. That’s a quarter of the total in this largest outbreak — at 1,095 cases — in the United States since 1992, and since the measles was declared eliminated here in 2000.
But elimination is a porous concept when vaccine hesitancy takes hold. It seems to have traction in insular communities whatever their flavor — Amish, Nation of Islam, far-right Texans, charedi Jews, progressive leftists. These groups must create eternal feedback loops of misinformation within their tribes, which no amount of data or science seem able to undo.
In Rockland County, the vaccine issues in the charedi community did not give birth to anti-Semitism — that flourishes over a myriad of other unrelated issues, including schools, taxes, and development. But it has allowed what was there to spread like a contagion. Comments on social media go unchecked. “Dirty selfish measles people” is one of the more printable ones.
The Luddite mindset extends to the local “progressive” community in Rockland. At the start of the measles outbreak, Green Meadow, the local Waldorf school, had a stunningly low vaccination rate of 42.3 percent for the 2017-2018 school year, according to the New York State Department of Health. That was the very lowest in the county. Some 20 Green Meadow parents sued the county health department when their unvaccinated kids were banned from attending school. But because the actual measles cases stem from the charedi community, the idea persists that they are the font of anti-vaxx fervor. You don’t see anyone writing “dirty selfish measles people” about natural-fiber yoga-mat Green Meadow parents.
I never imagined that I’d ever see people so dead-set against one of the greatest feats of modern medicine. Vaccines are a victim of their own success — they’ve eradicated the very evidence that proves why they’re necessary. My mom remembers polio outbreaks that closed the pools during the summer in Houston, where she grew up.
The last known case of smallpox in the world occurred in Somalia in 1977, according to the World Health Organization. People a generation older than I actually might remember the ravages of these diseases. But today, we can be cavalier about protecting ourselves and our children — or conversely, infecting everyone else — because these diseases are phantoms. None of us has seen measles since the last of the baby boomers (of which I am one) were, well, babies.
New York State just passed legislation banning the religious exemption for vaccine avoidance, something that had not seemed possible until the breadth of this outbreak. It is a relief, and yet the objections cast as an assault on religious or parental freedom remain. There does not seem to be any statistic you can throw at determined anti-vaxxers to change their minds. What exactly is unpersuadable about this: In every 1,000 cases of measles, one or two people who contract the disease will die from it, even with the best of care, according to the CDC. Deaths from the measles vaccine? One in 1.5 million.
The risk/benefit analysis is obvious. Get the vaccine. And when they come up with a vaccine for virulent anti-Semitism?
We could use that, too.
Marla Cohen is a freelance writer. She lives in Rockland County.