March 26, 2019
I live in upstate New York, one county away from Rockland County. My children have not been vaccinated since my about-to-be-20-year-old daughter was a baby for both religious and medical reasons. My world was rocked yesterday when Rockland County Executive Ed Day held a press conference declaring a county-wide State of Emergency because of an ongoing measles outbreak. Starting at midnight last night, anyone under 18 who has not received a measles vaccine will be “barred from public places” for the next 30 days “or until they receive the MMR vaccination.” Parents who don’t comply will face the prospect of a $500 fine or six months in jail.
For purposes of this order, Rockland County Attorney Thomas Umbach says that they’ve defined a place of public assembly as any place that people get together for civic or social reasons, including shopping centers, businesses, restaurants, schools, hospitals, and houses of worship. Outdoor locations are not included.
It’s Not About Public Health
Let’s be clear about this (one of Ed Day’s favorite expressions, given the number of times he used it in yesterday’s press conference): This measure is not about public health.
It is about punishment, punishment for deviance from what Day and his cadre of professionals have deemed “acceptable” behavior.
If this were about public health, it wouldn’t matter whether someone was not vaccinated for a religious or medical reason. In fact, those who are not vaccinated for medical reasons should be the most likely to both catch and spread measles, shouldn’t they? Yet, as Day says, they are exempt from the order “because it’s the right thing to do.” That’s only the “right thing to do” if your real purpose is to punish the religiously exempt families.
And no one mentioned, despite all of Day and company’s vaunted concern for the “most vulnerable”—infants, the elderly (who, by the way, are not vulnerable to measles as the majority gained permanent immunity when they had measles as children), and the immunocompromised—that live-virus vaccines like the MMR shed, making recently vaccinated children a bigger threat of infection to the “most vulnerable” than uninfected children who have not received a vaccine.
What justification did Day give for this extreme action, which as he helpfully pointed out has never been done in this country before? A total of 153 confirmed cases of measles in Rockland County since October of last year.
Of course, for anyone who remembers a time before there was a measles vaccine, the idea that 153 cases of measles over the course of six months, in a county that serves as a New York City suburb, qualifies as a “State of Emergency” is more than a little laughable. In 1962 the CDC estimates that there were three to four million cases of measles in the country, and only about ten percent of them were even reported.
Below is a compilation of television treatments of measles in that era. Note the Brady Bunch episode aired long after measles vaccines were available. By the time I watched it, I had had two different kinds of measles vaccines and the measles.
Like I said, calling 153 cases of measles a “State of Emergency” is laughable. But the situation in Rockland right now is even more ridiculous than that. I noted that of the 153 cases, only 48 have been confirmed since the first of the year. To me that sounds like the outbreak should be just about over. And that does indeed seem to be the case in Rockland, because John Gilmore of the Autism Action Network called the Rockland County Department of Health and spoke to Kevin McKay, who is responsible for tracking measles cases. McKay told him there are only four active cases of measles in the whole county.
In other words, at the present time, there are only four people in Rockland County who can be considered contagious.
In what universe does four cases of measles constitute a public-health emergency, justifying the punitive suspension of civil rights for a significant portion of the county’s population?
It’s not clear exactly how many people are affected by this order; as only 72.9% of the 92,000 children in Rockland County are considered “fully vaccinated” (meaning have received two doses of MMR), even after the recent administration of nearly 17,000 doses of vaccine, it could potentially affect up to 25,000 children.
The Politics of Shame-and-Blame
The first thing you have to understand is that this particular outbreak has been largely confined to the Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox Jewish community of Rockland County. These people tend to have large families and send their children to private schools with a strong focus on their religion. If a child with seven siblings gets the measles, chances are good that at least some of those siblings will come down with it too. So even when an “outbreak” is confined to a few families, the numbers can shoot up quickly. With a current case count of four, it’s conceivable that all of them are from a single family.
A very similar situation occurred in the Ohio Amish community in 2014, which had an outbreak of 383 cases, the largest outbreak since measles was declared “eliminated” in 2000. In both situations, multiple travelers came home with measles after going overseas and went to large gatherings before they knew they were infected.
(“Eliminated” means that measles is no longer circulating in the population, and new infections have to come from outside the country. At this point, they have to originate in the Eastern Hemisphere because measles has been eliminated in the entire Western Hemisphere.)
But wait, you’re thinking, wasn’t the Disneyland outbreak in 2015 the biggest one we’ve had in years? Nope, that one was only 147 cases altogether, and the majority of its victims were adults.
So why did we hear so much about the 147 cases stemming from a Disneyland traveler and how “anti-vaxxers” were to blame for bringing measles back and next-to-nothing about the much larger outbreak the year before?
Hype and politics, my friends.
You see, an outbreak in the Amish community couldn’t be blamed on Andrew Wakefield, Jenny McCarthy, or those damned “anti-vaxxers.” If the media went after the Amish in 2014, most Americans would have seen it for the bullying behavior it is. So, the PR machine waited until measles came to Disneyland before launching coordinated legislative efforts across the country to eliminate religiously and philosophical exemptions to states’ school vaccination requirements, even though very few deliberately non-vaccinated children were even affected.
Other than California, these efforts met with various levels of failure, fortunately, but we all knew they were biding their time for another opportunity. Enter Rockland County Executive Ed Day to up the shame-and-blame ante.
Misunderstanding of Religious Exemption
The media has largely played down the religious community angle of the current outbreak and emphasized the “unvaccinated children” angle. After all, if people knew that this ban amounted to keeping large Ultra-Orthodox families out of synagogues during Passover, they just might see the parallels between laws passed in Nazi Germany restricting the rights and movements of Jews and this effort to punish Jewish families for exercising their right to practice their religion.
“The Council of Rabbis has made it very clear as far back 2015 that there is no such thing as a religious exemption,” says Day. “They urge families to get immunized.” This statement and several others make it clear that not only does Day not understand what a religious exemption is, he doesn’t understand the nature of Judaism either.
As any parent with a religious exemption can tell you, it is the private and personal beliefs of the individual that matter, not the beliefs of any specific religious leader, even if the parent is a member of that leader’s congregation. But perhaps more importantly in this specific case, Day completely misunderstands the traditional (and the Ultra-Orthodox are nothing if not traditional) Jewish approach to their religion.
Students at yeshivas learn everything they can about Jewish law, but they understand from the get-go that interpretation of the law is fluid and variable. Every paragraph has been interpreted many times in many ways and is still argued over by study partners in yeshivas today. In other words, there is no single “right” interpretation. Students are taught to reach their own understanding of holy writings.
Day goes from bad to worse when he proclaims that he is a Christian, and he knows of no Christian objections to vaccination.
As insulting as it is for him to judge others’ religious beliefs based on his own, he seems utterly unaware that the MMR is made using cells derived from aborted fetuses. Many Christians object to abortion on principle and also object to products made from cells derived from abortions, including vaccines. In addition, Christian Scientists, explicitly reject preventive medical interventions.
But none of that even matters. As I noted above, it is the individual’s beliefs that matter, not those of any organization or leader. Day may not have a problem injecting material from aborted fetuses, but he should understand that there are many Christians who do.
(While we’re on the subject of specific religious beliefs prohibiting vaccination, Jews and Muslims have strict proscriptions against the consumption of pork, and the FluMist, rotavirus, and shingles vaccines are all made with porcine gelatin.)
Coercing 100% Compliance with Day’s Vaccine Agenda
Day and others acknowledged receiving a tremendous amount of cooperation from the affected community, but maintain that’s “not good enough.”
“We’re now seeing pockets of resistance,” Day complained. “Our inspectors have begun to meet increasing resistance from those they’re trying to protect. Our health inspectors have been hung up upon or told not to call again. They’ve been told ‘We’re not discussing this. Do not come back.’”
I suspect these families have been hounded and harangued by health department officials since October. Day has made it clear he doesn’t understand their religion or what constitutes a religious objection to vaccination. Is it any wonder that these families have lost patience with their “well meaning” and judgmental harassment? And make no mistake, the judgment is pervasive. Day repeatedly used the words “do the right thing” in yesterday’s press conference, implying that anyone who disagrees with him is “doing the wrong thing.” It’s clear that his definition of the “right thing” is a virtual 100% vaccination rate.
(Day mentions exceptions for “documented medical reasons,” but any parent in New York whose children have been injured by vaccines can tell you medical exemptions are about as plentiful as unicorns. They are generally only attainable after a near-death experience, and only for the specific vaccine that caused it. And even that is usually temporary.)
What is Day’s solution to the “increasing resistance” to health department hounding? Turn up the heat even further—an all-out assault on the people’s right to decide what goes into their bodies in an attempt to crush bodily autonomy forever.
Illogical and Wrong-Headed Policy
And is 100% compliance “the right thing”?
Day says of measles infection, “Every new case is a roll of the dice that can could bring on pneumonia, encephalitis or swelling of the brain, or cause premature birth which can lead to kind of complications and even death.”
That’s true—to an extent. While measles is largely a benign infection in well-nourished children with working immune systems, there are exceptions that mean measles occasionally causes long-term damage or death. But we haven’t heard anything about such complications in the affected families in Rockland. It seems that this particular population is handling acute measles infection quite well.
What Day doesn’t acknowledge is that virtually the same statement about complications and death, especially encephalitis, can be made about the MMR. In fact, many of the families who no longer vaccinate have experienced encephalitis as a result of one or more vaccines, and some have even watched a child die as a result.
Day acknowledges that the vaccine poses a risk to at least some children but immediately dismisses it as a concern: “There’s risk in everything,” he says. “Could there have been a child, a few children who may have been compromised by a vaccination? Of course there could be. But there’s something called the greater good here. And we’re trying to do the best we can in society to make sure that we’re okay.”
Note that Day takes as a given that his determination that the risks of vaccinating are acceptable but the risks of the disease are not is the correct determination, even for those families whose children will necessarily be harmed by the vaccine. That’s absurd.
Reactions to both the disease and the vaccine vary dramatically from family to family and from ethnic group to ethnic group. Some react badly to the disease, and others react badly to the vaccine. From what I’ve seen there isn’t a whole lot of overlap between those groups, yet no one at CDC is analyzing which individuals or which ethnic groups are most likely to be harmed by either the disease or the vaccine. Instead they urge all to vaccinate, and vaccinate again, no matter how much neurological and/or immunological damage children—mostly babies and toddlers—experience as a result. This policy is illogical and wrongheaded at best, irrationally prioritizing “protection” of one population at the expense of the other with no ethical justification.
In addition, long-term immunological and neurological conditions due to repeated immune activation events are incredibly expensive in terms of medical treatments and therapies for families, schools, communities, health insurance companies, and society as a whole. Just as an example, my ex-husband had an autoimmune condition that required a liver transplant. If cancer in his bile ducts hadn’t killed him first, his healthcare would have cost a fortune.
I’ve noticed a preponderance of immune damage in my own ethnic group, people of Irish descent, and, when I was living in Brooklyn, a doctor from the nearby Ultra-Orthodox Jewish community noted that she was seeing a hotspot of a supposedly “rare” condition: PANDAS. If you don’t know, PANDAS is autoimmune brain inflammation—encephalitis again—and is anything but rare in the families of children with autism.
Autoimmune conditions in general have been associated with adverse vaccine reactions; there are several listed on the Vaccine Injury Table, and world-renowned immunologist Yehuda Shoenfeld has written extensively about autoimmune/inflammatory syndrome induced by adjuvants (ASIA) such as the aluminum salts contained in many vaccines.
I have long suspected that historical events have rendered both the Irish and Jewish ethnic groups epigenetically susceptible to the kind of immune damage that vaccines can cause. Perhaps the very genes responsible for this susceptibility helped my ancestors survive the Irish Potato Famine in the 1800s or Rockland County’s Jewish families survive the Holocaust.
In any event, while we know that genetic susceptibilities exist, CDC has been anything but proactive about discovering what they are and who is affected. Therefore, it is incumbent upon us as parents to assess the risk-to-benefit ratio of any given vaccine for our own families. I don’t know about Day, but my religion will not allow me to take any action that I know has a high risk of causing my children harm, and injecting the MMR most definitely qualifies. I suspect the same is true for many Jewish families in Rockland County.
Day Displays Appalling Lack of Measles Knowledge
As irritating as is Day’s assumption that he knows what “the right thing” is for any specific family, much less all of them, even more disturbing from a public health perspective is that he has no grasp of basic facts about measles. “This is since the disease in 2000 was ‘eradicated,’” Day said, punctuating the word eradicated with air quotes. “The disease was eradicated. Think about that.”
The fact is that measles has never been eradicated, and if it were there would be no possible way for “anti-vaxxers” to “bring it back.” (Smallpox, on the other hand, has been eradicated, and no one other than military and medical research personnel has been vaccinated for it since the 1970s.)
The correct term, as noted above, is “eliminated.” Eliminated doesn’t mean that there were zero cases that year—or any year since—and, in fact, there hasn’t been a single year in U.S. history with zero cases. Eliminated simply means that acute measles infection must be imported from elsewhere—which it is, constantly, because measles is highly contagious and has a long latency period, two things that weren’t true of smallpox.
And now CDC and the scientific community recognize that the immunity of adults who have been “fully vaccinated” has been waning at an unknown and variable rate, so there will always be a significant proportion of the adult population that is vulnerable to infection, making eradication virtually impossible. And, while the elderly may not be currently vulnerable, as the vaccinated population ages, one day they will be.
Day insists he will keep on with his punitive policy until everyone falls in line with his agenda and “we eradicate disease permanently.” “Let’s eradicate measles like it was eradicated in 2000,” he says. The fact that he is making such manifestly inappropriate statements hardly instills confidence that he knows “the right thing” for anyone to do, much less everyone.
What is absolutely clear is that Day knows, at least on a subconscious level, that he and his cohorts are deliberately punishing Jewish families who have come to a different conclusion about “the right thing to do” from the perspective of their children’s health and their religious beliefs: “We made an active decision to insure that if people immediately comply with this, they wake up and vaccinate their children now . . . they can enjoy the holiday season with their children, Easter and Passover.”
Leaving aside the facts that many children get a form of measles from the vaccine and no one is going to enjoy a holiday if their child is experiencing vaccine-induced encephalitis, the unspoken alternative for Rockland County parents is clear: If you do not cave to my demands, I will ruin the holiday you hold dear.
That is extortion, pure and simple.
I feel for Rockland County parents right now. I know how important Passover celebrations are in the Ultra-Orthodox community. But I sincerely hope that, instead of caving to these extortionist demands, every parent commits to escalating rather than erasing their resistance. Day and his colleagues are the ones who deserve punishment for this ridiculous overreach of governmental authority. Don’t let them crush your spirit. Use their tactics of shame-and-blame against them, and show up in powerful numbers. Above all else, don’t let them achieve their goal of complete compliance using such unethical means, it will only encourage more extreme civil rights violations in future.
The time, my friends, for civil disobedience has arrived.
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