For the first time in 15 years, people have died in Israel from complications of measles, first a 1-year-old girl and then an 82-year-old woman. What the two victims had in common was an inability to defend themselves against the disease. The toddler had not been vaccinated by her parents, while the elderly woman’s immune system had been weakened by other illnesses. Both were victims of circumstances, not just of measles.
Measles was nearly eradicated years ago thanks to an effective vaccine, and no less by social solidarity that created the “herd immunity” effect. Society understood that vaccinations also provide a barrier between the disease and people who cannot be vaccinated for health reasons. I will vaccinate my son so that your sick grandmother won’t catch the disease; you vaccinate your daughter so that my pregnant wife won’t be at risk.
This bond of mutual responsibility, which is critical to public health, has begun to unravel in recent years. Israel miraculously got through the polio crisis of 2014 without any casualties, in part through a supreme effort to increase vaccination rates. The current measles crisis has already caused deaths and is still in full swing.
Israel’s immunization rate is still generally high. But a different herd effect has allowed some parents to choose not to vaccinate their children. The collective memory of the ravages of these diseases and the importance of the immunization rate is diminishing. Few remember the thousands of people left paralyzed or dead by polio in the 1950s, or the deaths from measles and other common diseases that have since been eradicated in the Western world.
A full 3,000 people were diagnosed with measles in 2018. In recent months, pediatricians and public health physicians have expressed support for keeping unvaccinated children out of school. Last week, with the support of Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, the Health Ministry, for the first time in three decades, invoked Section 19 of the Public Health Ordinance (which has been enforced only twice since the state was founded) to keep 14 unvaccinated children out of preschool in the town of Harish.
Although this is an extreme measure, the Health Ministry’s decision must be supported. There are cases in which people’s autonomy over their own bodies, and parents’ prerogative to decide for their children, clashes with the right to life of defenseless segments of the population.
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