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L.A.'s Jewish Day Schools Are Experiencing A Measles Outbreak

A college student gets the MMR vaccine. (Photo by Mark Kegans/Getty Images)
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In early December 2016, a measles outbreak began in California. Since then, 20 people, 18 of whom are in Los Angeles County, have contracted the contagious disease.

According to the Los Angeles Times, none of the county's 18 victims could provide proof of vaccination to public health officials. And, as noted at the L.A. Times, the outbreak seems to be centered in Los Angeles's Orthodox Jewish community.

Rabbi Hershy Ten, who runs the Jewish healthcare organization Bikur Cholim, told LAist that at least 15 of the 18 people infected in the current outbreak are students at, or family members of, children at Los Angeles Jewish day schools.

"To be clear, Bikur Cholim does not have the same responsibilities the Los Angeles County Public Health department has," Ten said. However, after being contacted by the Los Angeles Department of Public Health, Ten convened a conference of pediatric, public health, and legal experts to determine the threat posed by the disease and its outbreak, as well as "a response to this outbreak to ensure this doesn't happen again, or to minimize this from happening again."

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"The live teleconference included more than 70 Jewish day school faculty and synagogue rabbis throughout Greater Los Angeles who called in to learn about the threat measles carries, how it spreads, and the legality for individual institutions to create policies that go beyond current vaccination law," a press release by Bikur Cholim notes.

The law in reference is California's 2015 vaccination law mandating that every child in a public or private school in the state be required to receive full vaccinations. Furthermore, the law forbids opting-out of vaccinations due to personal or religious beliefs. Only a medical waiver can grant exemption.

Erwin Chemerinsky, Dean of the UCI Law School, present at Rabbi Ten's conference, stressed that private schools in the state may, in fact, enforce stricter rules on top of California's vaccination law.

“There’s absolutely nothing in the law that prevents a school from setting a strict policy with regard to requiring vaccinations and excluding those who have not been vaccinated," Chemerinsky said, according to the Bikur Cholim release. "I don’t think it’s any problem to do that in the middle of the year, either; especially in light of a measles outbreak. ...Every challenge to a vaccination law in the country has lost; courts have always found that the justification of protecting children in stopping the spread of communicable diseases justifies requiring that children and teachers be vaccinated.”

LAist also asked Rabbi Ten about the Jewish law of Pikuach Nefesh, or care of the soul. According to Jewish law, health and preservation of life overrides every other Jewish law (i.e. keeping the Sabbath, Kosher laws, etc.)

"Without question, ensuring one's children stay healthy and alive falls under the tenet of Pikuach Nefesh," Ten told LAist. "By not vaccinating your child, "you are putting them at risk and you're putting others at risk, and I would place that under the broad heading of Pikuach Nefesh. [However,] other Jewish laws impact Pikuach Nefesh."

“I’m hopeful that we’re getting to the end of this" outbreak, Dr. Jeffrey Gunzenhauser, interim health officer for the L.A. County Department of Public Health, told the Los Angeles Times.

"That being said, we are urging our schools and synagogues to immediately implement new policies for 2017 that will prevent any children who aren’t immunized due to personal beliefs from attending a school or playgroup," Rabbi Ten stated in Bikur Cholim's press release. "On this issue we must remain resolute in our unwavering dedication to protect the most vulnerable among us from falling prey to an avoidable tragedy.”