How vaccine fear is tearing apart America's Orthodox Jewish community


New York state has become ground zero for the anti-vax movement. Dateline goes inside the close-knit Orthodox Jewish community being torn apart by vaccine fear and a measles outbreak.

Watch: 'America Measles Comeback'  on Dateline

Measles is highly contagious, and the World Health Organisation says the disease has increased in almost all regions across the globe. Albania, Czech Republic, Greece and Britain have all lost their measles elimination status. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, measles has killed more people in 2019 than Ebola.

Rockland County, in upstate New York, certainly doesn't feel like the epicentre of a major disease outbreak. It's beautiful, lush, and green. Tall, billowing cumulous clouds explode upwards - stark white shots in a deep blue sky. The streets are wide, without footpaths. People dressed in Hasidic Jewish clothing walk unhurriedly along grass verges.

A recent measles outbreak has stirred controversy in New York's Jewish community.

It's a far cry from the hysteria about the measles in the United States. But the facts are there – this country is in the midst of the worst outbreak in more than a quarter of a century. It's so bad, that the United States Centre for Disease Control (CDC) there's a reasonable chance that this country will lose its measles elimination status by October 2019.

That "measles elimination" status was hard won. Since the widespread introduction of a measles vaccine in the 1960s, the once-deadly virus was officially eliminated from the United States in the year 2000. Watching the glitchy video footage of President Clinton making the announcement that year, he looks pleased. Undoubtedly relieved to have something positive to announce after a tumultuous final two years in the White House.
But now, almost 20 years later – like special counsels and the threat of impeachment – measles is back. Rockland County's Orthodox Jewish community, with a low vaccination rate and frequent travel to other measles outbreak zones - like Ukraine and Israel – has felt the brunt of the outbreak. I'm here to talk to people about it, but I'm not having much luck.

Dateline reporter Dean Cornish spoke to Matis about religion and vaccines.
Dateline reporter Dean Cornish spoke to Matis about religion and vaccines.

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities keep to themselves. And Monsey, a town which is mostly made up of this demographic, is a tough nut to crack. It's understandable – this town has become the by-word for measles. Outsiders are treated with suspicion – especially those from the media. An hour South, Orthodox Rabbi and infectious diseases specialist Aaron Glatt explains to me that this measles outbreak has added fuel to the fire of Antisemitism in his community. Combined with the battle lines being drawn between those who pro-vaccine and anti-vaccine, and the stigma put on those who have been sick with the disease – well, you have a demographic who is inclined not to want to be interviewed.

Except for Matis. He welcomes me exuberantly into his home. His many children run around front lawns and cavernous hallways so quickly, it's hard to count them all. It's a joyous and exuberant environment, and yes, Matis tells me, "they've all had their jabs".

Matis' point of view is that there's nothing in Judaism that forbids vaccinations. "We embrace science and medicine," he tells me. He's decided to speak out in the face of what he believes are negative stereotypes about his religion and community because of measles. And I'm grateful that he has. The other side, however, prove more difficult.

It's hard to really appreciate the various types of stigma that are wrapped up in a measles outbreak. Those who have experienced the disease find themselves berated by the pro-vaccine crowd – and also by the anti-vaccine crowd, for daring to speak out about their experience. Those who are vaccine-sceptical feel marginalized and driven underground. Like so many issues in the US in 2019, it feels hard to imagine a space where proactive discussion can be had between two deeply-divided sides.

Measles is highly contagious and complications of the disease can be fatal.

So, I didn't find a measles sufferer in Rockland County, New York. 'Pearl' (not her real name) spoke to the other Orthodox view on vaccination. "A baby's body is pure – a gift from God," she says. "You don't just start messing with a baby's immune system." Her views are echoed in literature circulated throughout the community. It's contributed to an incredibly low rate of immunisation in Rockland County – just 77 per cent. With a 95 per cent vaccination rate required to achieve 'herd immunity', the future doesn't look bright for this sleepy, verdant town in a previously-forgotten corner of upstate New York.

In an attempt to quell the spread of measles, New York state recently passed a law banning religious exemption for vaccines. Vaccine sceptics in the ultra-Orthadox community tell me, no problem – they'll home school their kids, or move to a different state. They're among a global trend of vaccine scepticism nation wide – fuelled by a deep mistrust of big pharmaceutical companies and the government, as well as the interpretation of religious teachings. As pro-vaccine Rabbi, Doctor Aaron Glatt tells me – "the measles vaccine has become a victim of its own success. No one remembers what a real measles outbreak looks like in America. So the threat of the vaccine seems greater than the threat of the disease. But the threat of the disease is real".