500 British kids get emergency vaccinations after measles spreads from Israel
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500 British kids get emergency vaccinations after measles spreads from Israel

London doctor says outbreak centering on ultra-Orthodox due to ‘mistrust in secular authorities’; Israeli Health Ministry, hospitals spar over treatment

Illustrative photo of a child receiving a vaccination (Shutterstock/JTA)
Illustrative photo of a child receiving a vaccination (Shutterstock/JTA)

More than 500 children in Britain’s Jewish ultra-Orthodox community have reportedly received emergency vaccinations over the last two months, amid a measles epidemic believed to have originated from UK Jews returning home after spending the High Holidays in Israel.

Israel is currently in the grip of a measles outbreak, which is being blamed on people who refuse vaccines for themselves or their children for ideological or other reasons.

The outbreak has centered on ultra-Orthodox communities, where immunization rates are generally lower. Medical officials have been scrambling to educate and vaccinate thousands in Jerusalem, Beit Shemesh and elsewhere.

In the UK, more than 60 cases of measles have been reported since early October — a staggering 253 percent increase since January — mostly in the northern London boroughs of Hackney and Haringey which are home to a large ultra-Orthodox population, the Jewish Chronicle reported Wednesday.

Illustrative: ultra-Orthodox men walking along the street in the Stamford Hill area of London, Jan. 17, 2015. (Rob Stothard/Getty Images via JTA)

According to Doctor Joseph Spitzer of London’s Cranwich Road Surgery medical center, immunization rates in the local ultra-Orthodox community is “definitely lower than the general population and there are lots of reasons for that.”

Among those reasons, he detailed the typically large Haredi families and lack of time to vaccinate, widespread debunked urban myths regarding “dangers” of the MMR vaccine, and also a mistrust of secular authorities.

“Parents who don’t avail themselves of immunizing their children are absolutely irresponsible,” Spitzer told the Jewish Chronicle. “The epidemic will burn itself out, as all epidemics do in time, but I hope that people will learn from it and in future not play Russian roulette with their children.”

Hundreds in Israel have fallen ill with the infectious virus this year, and an 18-month-old toddler died in Jerusalem, the first such death from measles in the country in 15 years.

There has been a growing phenomenon of parents refusing to vaccinate their children, due to various discredited claims that the life-saving practice is dangerous.

Illustrative: Baby suffering from measles (CC BY CDC Global, Flickr)

Meanwhile, senior officials in several Israeli hospitals have accused the Health Ministry of failing to contain the measles epidemic, saying it was “unreasonable” to expect them to locate all the people who have been in contact with each patient and calling for a nationwide vaccination campaign to immunize the entire population, the Yedioth Ahronoth daily reported.

They also said there aren’t enough isolation rooms for all the measles patients, the paper reported.

The Health Ministry responded to the report by blaming the hospitals for the lack of isolation rooms and for failing to adequately vaccinate their employees.

Knesset members last month unanimously advanced a bill that would give Israeli authorities the power to sanction parents who do not vaccinate their children and to ban entry to all educational institutions, including kindergartens, for any child or person who has not been vaccinated against a disease when there is a national concern over an outbreak of the illness.

The law, if authorized in full, would allow the Health Ministry to follow up with children who do not get vaccinations at state-run well-baby clinics and send their parents an official warning if they continue to refuse. Ministry officials could then decide to apply financial sanctions in an effort to push them to agree to vaccinate.

The sanctions would take the form of reduced tax credits and welfare benefits that could add up to a loss of no more than NIS 2,000 (approximately $530) per month.

Raoul Wootliff contributed to this report.

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