Public health officials have revealed how a staggering 300 cases of measles were reported in north London’s Orthodox Jewish community in the first five months of 2019 alone.
Following an investigation by Jewish News, health bosses finally described the Orthodox outbreak for the first time this week, with Public Health England (PHE) saying it was “thankfully over as numbers have dropped off.”
The 300 cases of measles “associated with the Orthodox Jewish community” between 1 January and 31 May 2019 were detected in the boroughs of Hackney and Haringey, a PHE spokeswoman said.
To put that figure into perspective, there has been a full-year average of just 174 cases across all London boroughs between 2012 and 2018.
Orthodox leaders have told Jewish News that “misinformation, particularly from America,” had been feeding a communal reluctance to vaccinate, but that a process of “education” alongside extra clinics had seen numbers finally come down.
The outbreak in the Orthodox community comprises both laboratory-confirmed cases and likely cases, defined as having “the clinical features of measles” and being “linked to another case of measles that has been lab confirmed”.
PHE said the outbreak was now over after levels “dramatically reduced thanks to good attendance at MMR [measles, mumps and rubella] vaccination clinics in the area, highlighting the importance of ensuring as many people as possible have received both doses of the MMR vaccine”.
Health protection consultant Dr Anita Bell said: “Measles can spread very easily amongst anyone who has not had two doses of the MMR vaccine, particularly children, and this is why large outbreaks can occur in local communities.
“We have seen this happening in Hackney and Haringey earlier this year but due to good attendance at additional vaccination clinics, the number of reported measles cases has dropped down to levels seen prior to this outbreak.”
Last week Jewish News revealed that at the start of 2019, MMR vaccination rates among children in Hackney and Haringey had fallen by more than three percent since the year before, when rates nationally had fallen by only 0.4 percent.
Addressing discredited rumours that it is linked to autism, she said: “The MMR vaccine is safe and free, and it’s never too late get immunised. If you are unsure if your children have had the full two doses of MMR, speak to your GP who will have a record of the vaccinations they have received.”
Rabbi Avroham Pinter, who chairs the Charedi Health Forum, said: “There was an issue. It is now contained but it has been quite challenging. There were a number of reasons for the outbreak, including misinformation relating to autism and Wakefield.”
Pinter, who is also the principal at one of Stamford Hill’s largest schools, was referring to the now discredited work of Dr Andrew Wakefield, who in 1998 published a study linking the MMR jab to autism.
Subsequent studies found no evidence of a link, and in 2004 the Sunday Times revealed that Wakefield was being he was being funded through solicitors seeking evidence to use against vaccine manufacturers.
“We still have concerns about US-based lobbying against immunisation,” said Pinter, referring to Parents Education and Advocating for Children’s Health (PEACH), which disseminates anti-vaccination leaflets to Orthodox Jewish communities.
In one 40-page booklet, called ‘Vaccine Safety Handbook,’ it lists the “Halachic reasons” to question the safety of vaccines. One reads: “The exact odds of a vaccine killing or permanently injuring its recipient remain unclear.”
Pinter said: “We still need more education in the community. We’re trying to make sure an outbreak such as occurred this year does not occur again. But this scaremongering doesn’t help.”
Some parents at his school practised “alternative medicine,” he said, and simply refused to vaccinate their children.
“That’s their choice, I can’t do anything to convince them otherwise, but what happened? Their child got measles. Worse, they were sat next to a child who was in remission, and therefore vulnerable. I had to step in, but it was a worrying situation.”
He added that he had been forced to address a recent but widespread Stamford Hill rumour concerning an Orthodox child.
“This boy, as he was then, is now about 30. Story has it that when he was about five, he went deaf the day after he was vaccinated. I called the mother and she said it happened about nine months later, and that the jab was just one possible cause.”
Bell said the outbreak had been “a reminder of the importance of getting vaccinated,” adding: “Measles can be an unpleasant and serious disease – one in every ten people who get it end up in hospital and sadly one in 1,000 die.”