The current measles outbreak started in Israel, moved to New York City and threatens to make the jump to the Orthodox Jewish community in Toronto, unless something is done to prevent it.
On Sunday, May 26, an alliance of Jewish organizations, working in cooperation with Toronto Public Health, held a vaccination clinic at Bais Yaakov Elementary School in the heart of the Orthodox Jewish community in midtown Toronto.
More than 600 members of the Jewish community were vaccinated against measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) in the one-day blitz. Most were adults, since children are generally vaccinated at age one and receive a booster shot between the ages of four and six.
At the official close of the clinic, the number of people who received the MMR vaccine stood at 613 – an auspicious number in Jewish tradition, as it corresponds with the number of mitzvot (religious obligations) expected of observant Jews. But the number climbed by the end of the day to 620, according to Dr. Barry Pakes, who was part of the team that organized the event.
Pakes said about 30 children received immunizations, while a handful of people over 70 were vaccinated as well.
Many of the people who were immunized in the clinic were born after 1970 and likely had received a single vaccination as children, he said. Others were born before 1970, and presumed immune by Canadian public health standards, but may still be vulnerable to infection.
Pakes, a public health specialist, said the vaccination effort was largely aimed at adult members of Toronto’s Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox communities. These are people who are not anti-vaxxers, but who haven’t benefited from a second vaccination to boost their immunity.
“As far as we know, the rates of compliance with vaccinations in the Jewish Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox communities are at or above the immunizations in the overall community,” he said.
But because many Orthodox families are big, not all children in every family have had the vaccine or may not have had the second shot on time. This clinic gave them a convenient way to get everyone up to date, he said.
“The common factor is that we travel a lot to places where there are current measles outbreaks. Some of those who came on Sunday were going to a wedding in Monsey next week,” a reference to a New York town with a large Orthodox community. “Orthodox Jews have a lot of big simchas and socialize in large groups,” he said. “As a result, the chances of a very contagious disease like measles spreading are magnified.”
Pakes said the current outbreak has epicenters in haredi communities in Israel, New Jersey, New York and Detroit.
According to the New York Jewish Week, 523 cases of measles have been reported in New York since September 2018. More than 500 of them have been in the Orthodox Jewish community, with 25 new cases reported in one week in May.
Pakes acknowledged there are clusters of people in the Orthodox and ultra-orthodox communities who oppose vaccinations, including a small number of prominent rabbis. Their opposition may stem from the belief that God will protect them or that the vaccines aren’t kosher, or are potentially harmful.
But respected rabbinic authorities have spoken in favour of vaccinations. In Toronto, Rabbi Shlomo Miller, who is highly regarded in the Orthodox community, recommended people get vaccinated. In November, the Vaad Harobonim of Toronto issued one of the clearest and most important statements on vaccination in the English-speaking world, Pakes said.
A second MMR clinic will be held in Thornhill on Sunday, June 23, from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m., at a location to be confirmed. Registration is required with this URL: tinyurl.com/mmrthornhill.