Measles, misinformation and mayhem. In a nutshell, this is the anti-vaccination movement. 

It’s been in the headlines for months: measles, chicken pox and other diseases are making a comeback as more parents are choosing not to vaccinate their children out of fear of the side effects — specifically the side effects of the Measles, Mumps and Rubella (MMR) vaccine, which many skeptics are concerned leads to sickness, autism or death.

Doctors, physicians, and immunologists have come forward to debunk the loud din of the anti-vaccination movement, advocating against the lies and conspiracy theories attacking the current vaccines’ reputations. The Catholic Church has joined the fight as well. A long supporter of vaccines, the Church continues to advocate for its use.

Still, the anti-vax movement has continued to grow, flourishing on social media, through celebrities and uncredited sources, such as online parenting blogs. All the while, religious groups, doctors and people of science are continuing their fight to inform parents who are doubtful of the safety and effectiveness of vaccines, even if it’s to  no avail.

The Church and vaccines

Measles — a serious respiratory disease that causes a rash and fever — is highly contagious. The disease can be spread by coughing or sneezing into the air, and can be contracted up to five hours after coming in contact with an infected person.

Anti-vax propaganda has been widely circulated online and in ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities in the New York City and Rockland County, and has been a large cause of the measles outbreak in these areas. The growing distrust of vaccines in these tight-knit communities isn’t coming from opposition in any Jewish religious doctrine, but from an inherent vulnerability to misinformation that comes from living such an isolated lifestyle. 

“Misinformation can spread more easily and the correct information is hard to reach people,” said Peter Zaas, professor of religious studies at Siena College. A lot of Jewish communities “rely on each other for information,” said Zaas, which can make it “hard to be convincing” as a third-party source.

While anti-vax groups hardly represent the Jewish communities they’re targeting, correcting the vast spread of misinformation is a difficult battle.
As of late May, 254 confirmed cases of measles were found in Rockland County alone, and county officials recently issued a ban, barring any unvaccinated minors from public places in an attempt to combat the outbreak.

Other Orthodox Jewish areas in the state, such as in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg and Borough Park neighborhoods, are experiencing outbreaks. According to New York City Health, 85 cases of the measles were reported in Borough Park, and 424 cases have been reported in Williamsburg. 

Outside of New York City, 32 cases of the measles were reported in Orange County, 17 cases in Westchester County, two in Sullivan County, and one in Suffolk County.

In early May, the first confirmed case of the measles was reported in the Albany Diocese, inside Greene County. The Catholic Church has previously stated its support for vaccines, saying that the health and well-being of children are protected through vaccinations. 

And the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported last Thursday that measles cases in the United States have spiked to 971 so far this year, the highest number in any single year since 1994.

 “Outbreaks in New York City and Rockland County, New York have continued for nearly 7 months. If these outbreaks continue through summer and fall, the United States may lose its measles elimination status,” the CDC said in a press release.

“That loss would be a huge blow for the nation and erase the hard work done by all levels of public health. The measles elimination goal, first announced in 1963 and accomplished in 2000, was a monumental task. Before widespread use of the measles vaccine, an estimated 3 to 4 million people got measles each year in the United States, along with an estimated 400 to 500 deaths and 48,000 hospitalizations.” 

Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger said that “we have a responsibility not only to protect our own health and that of our dependents, but also the community” through vaccinations.

 “The statistical risk from vaccines proven to be effective is minimal compared to the grave danger of spreading disease,” he said.

Since the recent rise in cases of measles, the Catholic Church has restated its support for vaccinations, and has openly discussed the religious ethics of using vaccines, some of which were created using cells taken from aborted fetuses. 

The chickenpox, rubella, hepatitis A, one version of the shingles vaccine, and one preparation of rabies vaccine were all made by growing the viruses in fetal embryo fibroblast cells, which were first obtained from two terminated pregnancies in the early 1960s. 

These same embryonic cells obtained from the early 1960s have continued to grow in the laboratory and are used to make vaccines today. No further sources of fetal cells are needed to make these vaccines. 

 “It’s a replication of that original cell line,” said Dr. Cynthia Renauld-Lansing, physician and member of the Catholic Medical Association. Physicians are able to “replicate (cells) in the lab” to make the vaccines, and does not require additional or newer sources of fetal cells to continue making the vaccines. 

According to the Pontifical Academy for Life — a research institution on bioethics and moral theology issues within the Church — Catholics are encouraged to utilize vaccines “despite their distant association with abortion.”

The Vatican has also stated in Dignitas Personae that “grave reasons may be morally proportionate to justify” the use of vaccines, and that the “danger to the health of children could permit parents to use a vaccine which was developed using cell lines of illicit origin.” 

 “We are morally free to use vaccines,” said Dr. Lansing. She adds that through mass vaccinations, Catholics are able to preserve the “moral health” of their surrounding communities. 

The National Catholic Bio­ethics Center in Philadelphia reiterated Dr. Lansing’s comments, stating that Catholics are “morally free to use the vaccine, despite its historical association with abortion.” The Center adds that Catholics “have a moral obligation to protect the life and health of their children and those around them.”

The center, along with the Vatican and Pontifical Academy for Life, does encourage pharmaceutical companies to research alternative methods to vaccinations that don’t utilize cells taken from an aborted fetus. But “until such time as new vaccines become available,” Catholics should continue using the available vaccines.

Religious Exemptions

New York State lawmakers passed a bill on Thursday, June 13, that ends religious exemptions to vaccines in the state.

The bill, which revises the current public health law allowing only children with medical issues to be exempt, was signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo into law and goes into effect immediately.

The New York State Catholic Conference did not take a position on the bill, but remains concerned with the consequences of tampering with religious freedom.

"The herd immunity provided by the mandatory vaccination law is an essential component of maintaining the public health, and we support this policy,” said Dennis Poust, director of communications for the New York State Catholic Conference. “While we did not take a position on the bill and there is no Catholic tenet that could be interpreted to allow a Catholic parent to claim a religious exemption, we would have preferred if the exemption language had been tightened to prevent abuse rather than be completely removed. In general, as a matter of principle, we get concerned when religious liberty protections are removed from the law."

Backed by science

The MMR vaccine is typically administered in two shots: the first one between the ages of 1 year and 15 months old, then another between 4 and 6 years old. The first shot gives a child 93 percent immunity to measles and the second gives 97 percent immunity. 

However, until a child receives the vaccine, their health can be easily compromised.

While uncommonly deadly, the measles virus is not something to take lightly. Dr. Lansing recalls treating patients when an outbreak of the measles hit in the early 1990s. At the time, Dr. Lansing was working on the Navajo Indian Reservation in Arizona; the disease spread like wildfire. 

“Our hospitals were filled,” said Dr. Lansing. “If you’re not immune (to measles) you have a 95 percent chance of catching it.”

Measles can lead to complications such as diarrhea, ear infections or pneumonia and brain infections that can cause permanent brain damage. Contracting measles during pregnancy can also increase the risk of early labor, miscarriage and low birth weight infants. 

Dr. Lansing said that people with weaker immune systems who are unable to receive the vaccines are relying on herd immunity to stay safe: “Anybody whose immunity is compromised, anybody who’s on chemotherapy, they’re relying on people to be vaccinated.”

One popular anti-vax group, called PEACH (Parents Educating & Advocating For Children’s Health), has discussed concerns with the ingredients in vaccines and if the possibility of an allergic reaction to the vaccine — or to other health defects — is worth the risk for their child. 

Dr. Lansing said that “there is always a risk of an allergic reaction” to vaccines but the chances of being allergic to vaccines “is less than one in a million.”

“You can be allergic to antibiotics,” added Dr. Lansing. “And an allergic reaction to nuts is way higher” than reactions to vaccines.

Vaccines have come a long way since their initial push out in the 1960s. Some ingredients used in vaccines — such as aluminum — help the immune system respond better and build immunity to specific diseases. 

Other concerns, such as vaccines links to autism, have long been debunked. The original study released by Dr. Andrew Wakefield in 1998 linking vaccines to autism was found to be based on moot evidence, and has since been retracted. The CDC has run numerous studies and found no link between vaccines and autism, and reiterated that fact again last Thursday.

“I want to reassure parents that vaccines are safe, they do not cause autism. The greater danger is the disease that vaccination prevents,” said CDC Director Robert Redfield, M.D.,  in a press release. 

The Mayo Clinic and Autism Speaks, the authority on autism, agree. This from the website www.autismspeaks.org: “Scientists have conducted extensive research over the last two decades to determine whether there is any link between childhood vaccinations and autism. The results of this research is clear: Vaccines do not cause autism.” 

“There’s a feeling that somehow (vaccines are) going to harm the child, but if that was true we would have a lot more people who are sick,” said Johanna Flanigan, a retired nurse from Albany Medical Center.

Ellen Duffy, assistant professor of biology at Siena College, said that “there are consequences to letting kids getting these diseases.”

“There’s so many communities now not getting vaccinated,” she said. “Eventually there’s going to be a breaking point and it’s going to be global.”