When her 12-year-old son spiked a fever and started complaining of a sore throat right before Passover, Mrs. Pearl (not her real name) wasn’t worried. She confidently crossed off a host of possible infections that he was fully vaccinated for.
She thought he had strep throat, like two of his siblings.
They headed to urgent care for a rapid strep test, but the result was negative. Undeterred, she put her son on antibiotics at the nurse’s recommendation, and sent her son to bed.
He’d worsened by morning.
He woke feeling feverish and broken out in a rash.
Mrs. Pearl took him back to urgent care.
The doctor was certain that the rash was hives, “a reaction to the antibiotic.”
But Mrs. Pearl wasn’t so sure.
Following her instinct, she requested that the doctor test her son for measles, even though he and his siblings are all fully up to date on all of their vaccines—two doses each.
It turns out that not everyone in the Orthodox Jewish Community opts out of vaccines.
The test came back positive for measles.
Not long after, Mrs. Pearl’s 10-year-old broke out in a similar rash.
This child didn’t spike a fever but his breathing was labored and he complained that his eyes hurt.
He also tested positive for the measles.
Measles vaccine failure: fully vaccinated Brooklyn children getting measles
“If all of my kids are immunized, why did they get the measles?” Mrs. Pearl asked the doctor, feeling upset that she had had a house full of guests for the Passover holiday and that her children had inadvertently exposed other family members, including a pregnant older daughter, two babies, and one immunocompromised relative, to the measles.
“Why hasn’t anyone talked about vaccinated children getting and spreading the measles?!”
The doctor suggested she bring the other children into the office for titer testing.
Titer testing is a blood test that measures antibodies to specific viruses and bacteria to determine if you are likely immune.
Of the seven other children that Mrs. Pearl had tested—all of whom had been fully vaccinated—five more showed no immunity to measles.
So at the doctor’s suggestion, four of those children were given another dose of the MMR vaccine to boost their immunity.
Only her daughter, who was newly pregnant and could not be safely vaccinated, did not get the MMR booster.
A rash on her face, she went to the hospital for an IV infusion of measles immune globulin instead.
But it was too late for the MMR booster to provide any immunity to the others.
Two hours after getting the MMR booster, Mrs. Pearl’s 16-year-old spiked a 102-degree fever and broke out in a measles rash.
Four days later her three other children, all of whom had received the MMR booster, all had measles rashes, canker sores in their mouths, gastrointestinal problems, and lethargy.
Weak and lying in bed
“They’re weak and lying in bed, they can’t eat, they’re running to the bathroom all the time,” she told me, exasperated, when we spoke by phone.
She’s angry at the measles vaccine failure and worried about her family members, especially her pregnant daughter.
“I feel like she’s been thrown off the train.”
Mrs. Pearl has complained to the health department several times.
“What’s happening with your shot?” she asked the official there.
“Why would my fully vaccinated children be getting the measles? Who’s going to compensate me?”
“’You’re a great mom,’ he told me. ‘You have a valid claim. We need to figure this out,’ that’s what he said.”
Half of measles cases are in fully vaccinated people
According to Mrs. Pearl, the health department official also told her that measles vaccine failure is common and that about half the people getting measles in the current measles clusters in Brooklyn are fully vaccinated.
Mary Holland, a Harvard-educated lawyer on the faculty at New York University and co-author of two books about vaccines, says she’s not surprised.
While the CDC reports the efficacy rate after two doses of the measles vaccine at 97 percent, some experts, like Holland, believe that number is inflated.
“The measles component of the MMR suffers from primary and secondary failure,” Holland says. “In other words, it simply doesn’t work in some individuals and in other individuals the protection wanes. One size just doesn’t fit all.”
Indeed, in recent outbreaks of infectious diseases, including measles, many of those getting sick across the United States have been fully vaccinated.
Nationwide: measles vaccine failure, mumps vaccine failure, whooping cough vaccine failure
In the outbreak of measles that began at Disneyland in December 2014, 31 percent were vaccinated, according to government officials.
And health officials in Michigan last month had to explain to the public that a child’s symptoms that they reported as measles were actually a reaction to the vaccine.
In the meantime, an American Navy ship was quarantined at sea as more than two dozen fully vaccinated sailors fell ill with the mumps.
(In response, according to Business Insider, the Navy gave all 700 Fort McHenry service members on board an extra dose of the MMR vaccine.)
Then there’s the recent pertussis outbreak in Southern California.
All 90 people who have come down with whooping cough in Los Angeles County, including nearly 50 students from Harvard-Westlake School, have been vaccinated, according to the Los Angeles Times.
In Missoula, Montana this month, a whooping cough outbreak is affecting primarily vaccinated children, according to ABC.
Most recently, all 18 of the students infected with the mumps at the University of Florida in Gainesville were reported to be vaccinated.
In the meantime, members of the Ultra Orthodox Jewish community who have chosen not to vaccinate their children say they’re being unfairly targeted, both by public health officials who have been threatening them with fines, and by members of their own community.
While the majority of Orthodox and Ultra Orthodox Jews vaccinate, there is a lot of diversity within the Orthodox communities in New York, as there is within every Jewish community across the United States.
Some parents decline certain vaccines, not because they are “anti-vaccine” but because they feel these vaccines are not necessary for their children and are not in keeping with their spiritual values. Deeply religious people of different faiths refuse vaccines against sexually transmitted diseases like hepatitis B and human papilloma virus, and many Christians also choose not to vaccinate their children with vaccines made from human cell lines grown from aborted fetal tissue. These Christians explain that they are against abortion and do not believe it is safe or moral to inject children with products made from human fetal tissue.
Some Jewish parents also avoid vaccines made with pig products.
They don’t eat pork and they don’t want to inject themselves or their children with porcine gelatin, which is an ingredient in the rotavirus, shingles, and one brand of the flu vaccine, according to the CDC.
Why religious Jews opt out of vaccines
Other Orthodox Jews opt out of vaccines entirely.
“It’s my sincere religious belief that G-d created our bodies with His infinite wisdom and scientists have barely plumbed its intricacies,” one Ultra Orthodox Jewish mom explained.
“Until recently MDs removed tonsils from hundreds of thousands of kids with ‘religious’ fervor. The appendix was also considered a useless appendage,” this mom reminds me. “Looking back, was this ‘science-based,’ or was this a belief espoused by the medical community?”
Scientists now understand the tonsils and appendix are integral parts of the immune system. And the immune system is still a mystery to them. Think of all the autoimmune diseases they’re stymied by. As a religious Jew, I do not subscribe to science’s dogmatic belief that we are required to systemically alter our innate immune system to prevent disease. Blind obeisance to Science with a capital ‘S’ is not part of my religion. I worship G-d, the Creator of everything science grapples with.”
Another Orthodox family in New Jersey that claims a religious exemption, explains it a little differently:
We believe in G-d, and that G-d has created us and each facet of our being for a specific function and reason. We believe that the human body, when allowed to function naturally, is resistant to disease. We further believe that interfering with the body’s natural immune system via the injection of vaccines weakens the body, and that it demonstrates a lack of faith in G-d,” they wrote in a letter to the New Jersey Department of Health.
Health declines after vaccines
Other families in the Orthodox community used to vaccinate and stopped after seeing their fully vaccinated children’s health decline.
An Orthodox mom of eight told me that she vaccinated her first four children according to the CDC schedule and she noticed they were unwell after almost every appointment.
After years of taking her healthy children to the doctor only to see them lose language, spike fevers, and get repeated infections, she started connecting the dots. There was no question that her children’s health worsened with every round of vaccines.
One of her older children has autism and another developed severe gastro-intestinal issues that lasted for years.
Discouraged and exhausted taking care of sick children, she and her husband decided vaccines weren’t safe for their family.
They made an evidence-based decision, informed by their religion, to stop vaccinating.
Their four younger children are completely unvaccinated.
The four youngers are much healthier than their vaccinated older siblings.
No one can tell her why.
Community-minded, educated parents stop vaccinating
The families I spoke to, who did not want their names used for privacy reasons and fear of reprisal, aren’t “selfish” or “anti-science.”
They are community-minded, educated about vaccines, and making rational, judicious choices.
These families disagree with public health messaging that it is more dangerous to get the measles than it is to get the measles vaccine.
They are concerned about measles vaccine failure.
And many have seen with their own eyes how the measles vaccine itself can sometimes cause harm.
While it is clear that we are seeing measles vaccine failure and vaccine injury in higher numbers than ever before among children in the United States, the reasons why the vaccine is failing and why more children seem to be having more severe vaccine reactions are unclear.
So some Orthodox Jewish parents have started educating others in the community, not because they are “anti” anything, but because these parents wish someone had informed them properly.
They don’t want the vaccine-damage their children experienced—and will carry with them for the rest of their lives—to happen to anyone else’s children.
Vaccine adverse events
These non-vaccinating families point out that over 93,000 adverse events. Bad outcomes include hospitalizations and at least 450-measles-vaccine-related deaths, which have been reported to the federal Vaccine Adverse Events Reporting System. The actual number of adverse reactions is much greater: government-funded research shows that fewer than 1 percent of adverse vaccine reactions are actually reported.
Hadassah Aaronson is a physician in Northern Virginia who earned a master’s degree in public health who has been practicing medicine for twenty years.
Aaronson believes parents in every community have the right not to vaccinate.
“It’s not medically true that measles is the scariest thing in the world,” Aaronson tells me.
“Once you have measles, you are immune. And now we’re trying to criminalize parents who want their children to have lifelong immunity?”
Aaronson believes doctors have the responsibility to tell their patients about the risks and benefits of vaccines and then must allow their patients to make their own informed medical choices.
She thinks it’s inexcusable for physicians to kick families out of their practice because they don’t want to vaccinate.
A mom of nine, she’s also deeply disturbed by the way some Orthodox Jews, along with some city officials and some physicians, have been vilifying and shaming Orthodox Jewish families that don’t vaccinate.
“We must respect our patients and their families and their personal autonomy, when it comes to vaccines and every other medical treatment,” Aaronson points out.
“At this point medical professionals are joining with government officials to engage in coercion. But coercion has no place in medicine. I disagree with physicians who want their will imposed. I think it’s appalling.”
Her kids the shots but they still got the measles
Mrs. Pearl is also appalled.
“They’re harassing innocent mothers for no reason. I got my kids the shots. And I’ve still got three customers here with the fever,” she says.
“I want to clear the Jewish name out there on the street. My children shouldn’t be harassed when they go on city busses.”
The experience with her children’s measles vaccine failure has actually made Mrs. Pearl more sympathetic to people in the Jewish community who choose not to vaccinate.
“I used to think people who don’t vaccinate were crazy,” Mrs. Pearl says. “Now I’m not so sure. Maybe they’re right. Maybe my body doesn’t want to take garbage. Something is a red flag. After my story, I’m not so sure where the measles started. I’m legit. I did vaccinate. All my kids are up to date. Children ages 22 to 7 all getting the measles?”