One was traced to a child from Great Britain who was not vaccinated and was exposed to the disease shortly before leaving to attend a summer camp in the Catskills. The child was still in the incubation period and appeared to be healthy upon arrival at camp. When the symptoms emerged, the child infected everyone who was not immunized in their bunk, including the counselors. Some then brought the disease home with them, starting mini-outbreaks in Orthodox communities throughout the Northeast.
Most recently, starting in March of this year, there was an outbreak of measles in Borough Park and Williamsburg that was ultimately traced to a visitor from London. According to Dr. Leonard Krilov, the chief of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at SUNY’s Winthrop University Hospital, there were 56 confirmed cases reported to the New York City Department of Health through the third week of June. All of them involved individuals who were not vaccinated. The median age of the victims was 2 years. The youngest was 10 months old. Two of them were hospitalized for complications, but fortunately, no deaths were reported. To halt the outbreak, the Department of Health has moved up the age at which it recommends that children in three of Brooklyn’s large Orthodox communities should receive the MMR vaccine from one year to 6 months, as well as other preventive measures.
This history is why a number of pediatricians serving the Orthodox community are vehement in their insistence that every child in their practice receive a full schedule of immunizations.
But Dr. W. Keith Stafford, a pediatrician with a practice in South Carolina, writes that even though he personally is “in favor of vaccines, and all of my children have been immunized according to the standard schedule. . . I believe it is wrong for a physician to coerce a parent into vaccinating, when they are uncomfortable with it. . .
“It grieves me, when I see the guarded or fearful look come into the eyes of a parent when I start asking questions about a child’s immunization history, because they are afraid of what will happen when I discover they are not immunizing according to the established rules.”
Dr. Stafford believes that parents have a basic right to give or withhold their “informed consent” for their child’s vaccination. Based upon his experience with such parents, most have done some investigation on the Internet on their own. Even though the quality of the information upon which they are basing their decisions may be questionable, Stafford argues that they are generally not acting out of ignorance. “They are trying to protect their children from unnecessary risk. The fact that a majority of the medical establishment does not agree with their conclusions does not make them weirdos or troublemakers,” Stafford writes.
Stafford contends that such parents “are mostly looking for a physician who will listen to their concerns and allow them the time and freedom to move forward with immunizations when they feel comfortable. . . If the real goal here is to keep children as healthy as possible, treating these parents respectfully will get much more accomplished.”
There is no “one-size fits all” approach to reach these parents. Some will respond to a clear presentation of the scientific evidence supporting the safety of vaccines. Other parents will remain deeply distrustful of the claims by the medical and public health establishments that vaccination is safe for their child.
The public health argument is that allowing children to remain unvaccinated increases the danger of outbreaks in our communities. It says that parents have no right to place other children at greater risk through their decision not to immunize their own child.
But one may also question whether society has the right to force parents to vaccinate their young children against their will, and whether such efforts may be counterproductive in the end.
Ultimately, the question remains a dilemma.