Read: Measles and the limits of facts
Anti-Semites have long associated Jews with disease: Scholars have theorized that Dracula, the titular character in Bram Stoker’s story about a parasitic, deadly vampire who travels from Transylvania to England in search of new blood, might have been crafted to evoke insidious stereotypes of Jews. In New York, a very real public-health crisis has fed the image that Orthodox Jews are insular, ignorant, and against vaccines, when in reality the vast majority of this community—and Jews more broadly—support vaccination.
Rivkie Feiner, a community volunteer in Monsey, a town in Rockland County, told me she’s heard numerous stories of people yelling about measles or making derogatory comments when they see Jews. A man walked by her son in Costco and said, “I guess if I get the measles, I’m getting it here.” One local rabbi told her that during a visit to Rite Aid with his family, a group of teenagers screamed at them from the parking lot, “Hitler should have killed you all with the measles.” Feiner has lived in Monsey for basically all her life, she said, and in the past few years, “there have been more anti-Semitic incidents than in [her] entire life combined.”
The reasons behind the recent measles outbreak are complicated. The New York cases likely have origins in Israel and Ukraine, both of which are experiencing their own outbreaks of the disease. CDC officials have traced a handful of October cases in Rockland County to unvaccinated travelers arriving to the United States from Israel. The contagion there, according to the World Health Organization and The New York Times, was likely exacerbated by travelers returning from a pilgrimage to Uman, Ukraine, where some Jews pay respects to the grave of an important rabbi, Nachman of Breslov, on the holiday of Rosh Hashanah. Ukraine is currently experiencing an unprecedented measles outbreak, with 54,000 cases reported in 2018, according to Science magazine.
Orthodox Jews frequently travel back and forth between Israel and the United States, creating opportunities for the disease to spread, especially among unvaccinated people. On a recent press call, Nancy Messonnier, the CDC’s vaccine director, reported that 44 cases of measles have been brought to the U.S. by international travelers this year. More than 90 percent of those travelers, she said, were either unvaccinated or had an unknown vaccination status.
While unvaccinated people seeded the outbreak, the number of small children in Orthodox communities has helped it spread. Aaron Glatt, the chief of infectious diseases and the resident epidemiologist at the South Nassau Communities hospital on Long Island, told me that “even in relatively highly vaccinated communities, if you have a lot of little children under the age of one … you’re going to have an awful lot of young children at high risk for contagion.” The standard CDC guidelines on the measles, mumps, and rubella, or MMR, vaccine recommends that children receive a first dose at around 12 months and a second dose four to six years later. But for young children who might be exposed to the disease, especially through travel, the CDC recommends getting vaccinated sooner: as early as six months, with a second dose just four weeks later. Glatt has been working with public-health officials to share information about these updated guidelines, which could make a big difference in Orthodox neighborhoods with lots of babies.