Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Speaking of Science: Inside the outside of an anti-vax rally

Speaking of Science
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A vial of measles, mumps and rubella vaccine and an information sheet at Boston Children's Hospital in 2015. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

I traveled to Monsey, N.Y., last week to observe an anti-vaccine rally — held amid the biggest measles outbreak in the state in decades — and watched as activists and conspiracy theorists peddled misinformation to a crowd of religious parents. And, outside the rally, I saw quiet opposition from the same community.

Many wore clothes of the Orthodox Jewish. The ballroom that held the rally was divided into men's and women's sections. This community has been particularly vulnerable to anti-vaccine misinformation. Pamphlets were distributed to Orthodox areas of Brooklyn, falsely claiming vaccines contain harmful or sacrilegious ingredients.

In Rockland County, N.Y., which includes Monsey, there have been 223 reported cases of measles as of Monday. Nearly 80 percent of those did not receive the MMR vaccine. The large majority are children under the age of 18.

The rally "is not representative of the Orthodox Jewish community," said Ann D. Koffsky, an Orthodox Jewish author of a pro-vaccine children's book. "Ninety-nine percent of all rabbis, in all denominations, will tell you that it is a mitzvah, a commandment and obligation, to get vaccinated."

The attendees were afraid of being recognized (a rabbi who spoke at the rally played into this fear, suggesting those in the crowd were brave underdogs). A father of six from Queens, Ethan, told me he took a "big risk" to come here because vaccine supporters within the Orthodox community will shun the unvaccinated. "There's the vibe that you're a parasite," who takes advantage of "herd immunity," said Ethan, who did not want his last name used for fear of losing customers at his business.

Others in Orthodox clothing milled about in the dark parking lot outside the ballroom, as the rally stretched well into the night. They said they were pro-vaccine and here "observing." A 29-year-old man from Monsey, who refused to give his name, said the meeting was "absurd." His three children were vaccinated, he said.

Another group of observers, four 20-something men, blasted a recording in Yiddish from the sound system of a black SUV. The recording, they said, was encouragement to get vaccinated.

Baruch, who would not give his last name, of Rockland County, said he did not like how the anti-vaccine movement in his community had stereotyped all of it. He told an anecdote of a woman on a train who would not sit near a Jewish man because she said she didn't want to get sick, unaware that the man had been vaccinated and supported vaccine science.

Another car passed by, and the driver waved what looked like a wad of tissue out the window. The driver spoke in Yiddish. The young men laughed, and one explained the driver had said: "If you need measles, here's a package of measles."


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