by rabbi Ariel Abel
A recent petition to the government to make the meningitis B vaccination more widely available garnered more than 700,000 signatures.
No fewer than 1,200 people, mostly children, contract meningitis each year, and one in 10 die from it.
What does the Torah say about immunising children against potentially fatal illnesses?
Last weekend, I had occasion to sit up all night in hospital wringing my hands in worry, fearful that my child may have contracted meningitis. Meningitis is the swelling of the thick brain membrane when it attempts to filter out group ‘B’ pneumococcal bacteria, certain infections and viruses from entering the brain itself. Membrane swelling, in turn, damages the brain and nervous system. Fortunately, the swelling up was nothing other than a very ugly allergic reaction. So perhaps it should follow that as soon as available, I should run for the immunisation syringe.
The Torah sets prime importance upon medical consultation. However, it is also extremely important to build up immunity and natural resistance in the body.
Certain vectors are ruthless in invading the body, yet the resilience of the body is of major consideration. When Isaac was born, his aged mother Sarah breastfed him for two years.
Only then did Isaac turn to dependence upon other foods. The result was a strongly confident, resilient man with whom no one wished to pick a fight.
The peculiar function of a mother’s breastfeeding is that it reacts to the baby’s saliva, through the skin, sending messages to produce antibodies to allow the child to fight the illness; in Judaism such immune system building is obligatory.
Although the Israelite God is described as the healer of his nation, this does not mean that a Jew may take no provisions other than prayer if he or she is unwell.
On the contrary, until the time of Hezekiah, there was a Book of Healing, which rendered its users practically immortal. For devastating, painful, and potentially fatal afflictions of which meningitis is one, I can certainly understand the need for inoculations.
However, if the illness is sufferable and carries only negligible concerns for any negative effects, I doubt that immunisation should always be the option. Immunisations may have adverse effects; the other lasting effect is that the body does not get to fight back and produce its own resisting antibodies.
Hence the body becomes reliant on the laboratory and has no choice to fight back. The rolling of seven inoculations into one syringe and droplet post-natal may take a risk unacceptable to Torah. However, the principle of taking precautionary measures for the most serious illnesses is certainly Torah compliant.
• Ariel Abel is rabbi at Liverpool Old Hebrew Congregation