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Measles spike prompts letters from rabbis, government

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In the wake of measles outbreaks in Jewish communities in Israel, New York and New Jersey, two separate letters were sent out to parents of students who attend Jewish day schools in Toronto. The letters, one from Toronto Public Health (TPH) and the other signed by 36 Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Toronto-area rabbis representing schools, shuls and other organizations, implore parents to ensure their children are properly vaccinated.

The letter from TPH specifically mentioned the vaccines that inoculate against measles, whereas as the rabbis’ letter stressed the general need for proper vaccinations. But both letters were adamant about the need for parents to vaccinate their children.

In their missive, the rabbis make their case by stating that halakhah “relies upon the opinion of physicians and public health authorities concerning matters of health.”

As long as the consensus of medical evidence concludes vaccinating children is crucial for their health and well-being, there is a halakhic obligation for parents to make sure that their children are vaccinated according to best practices, the letter continues. For Toronto-based students, that would be the Ontario Publicly Funded Immunization Schedule.

Rabbi Tsvi Heber, Kashruth Council of Canada’s director of community kosher, co-ordinated the writing and signing of the rabbis’ letter. He said it came about because many Orthodox rabbis in Toronto were concerned about the health of the local children in the community, especially at a time of year when many families might be travelling to visit relatives in the locations affected by the measles outbreaks.

“The response thus far has been very positive and we are thankful to all of the local rabbis and laypeople who assisted in this effort. The Torah has given us the mandate … to be extremely careful with our lives, and that is our primary motivation,” Rabbi Heber said in an emailed statement.

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The TPH letter was written by Dr. Vinita Dubey, the organization’s associate medical officer of health. TPH co-ordinated with UJA Federation of Greater Toronto to make sure the letter was sent to parents of students attending Jewish private schools.

The letters are more of a preventative precaution at this point than a response to any measles cases in Toronto. In 2018, there have been five reported cases of measles, said Dubey, matching the average number of cases per year from 2013 to 2017. Of those cases, four people had been travelling and the remaining case was a family member of a person who had travelled. But as of the end of November, none of them were contracted from the outbreaks in other Jewish communities.

“Measles is a very contagious virus and is spread in the air. Sharing the same room with someone who had measles up to two hours after they left the room can be enough to spread measles,” Dubey wrote in an emailed statement. However, “due to good vaccination rates in Toronto and the effects of herd protection, large outbreaks of measles are infrequent in Toronto.”

TPH is currently in the process of evaluating immunization records for Toronto public school students, but they don’t have that information for private schools, including Jewish ones. That’s why, on top of the letter recommending children get vaccinated, it also asked parents to report their vaccinations to TPH for its immunization records. Dubey said many parents have done so.

Jonathan Levy, head of school at TanenbaumCHAT, has been in touch with TPH recently to assess and respond to the potential threat of measles. He says the school saw a mumps scare last year as an opportunity to go through the students’ immunization records, and now they feel strongly that the student body’s immunizations are up to date.

If a student at TanenbaumCHAT does contract measles, the school is obligated to report it to TPH, and will follow the public health office’s directions, Levy said. He added that he trusts TPH in these situations. When it comes to vaccination scares, he said, “they call the shots.”

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