Dear Therapist:

As everyone not living under a rock is aware, there has recently been an outbreak of measles in the frum [orthodox Jewish] community. While most of you are not medical doctors I was hoping you can help me from a psychological perspective. How can it be that something like vaccines that are considered safe and necessary by 99.9 percent of the medical community and somehow people have a cramp in their head against it? How are we to understand this psychologically? More importantly, how can we change this? It seems that arguing the point is futile and just makes people dig in more. Is there an effective way to talk to an anti-vaxxer?

 

Response:

Resistance to vaccination is not restricted to frum community. There are people peppered throughout the United States (and presumably the rest of the world) who similarly oppose vaccinations in general, and the measles vaccine in particular. Though there are risks inherent within the MMR vaccine, per the below excerpts from the CDC, the risk of severe reactions is extremely low. It is therefore clearly recognized that the risk of not being vaccinated is significantly worse than the risk of being vaccinated

 

Beyond the fairly minimal risk of non-immunity, there remains some risk for a small number of adverse reactions. The most severe of those potential reactions include an acute allergic response to the vaccine's components, deafness, long-term seizures, and permanent brain damage.    -(Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Vaccine Information Statement: MMR Vaccine, http://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/hcp/vis/vis-statements/mmr.pdf)

However, such responses are rare: They only occur in one out of every one million cases (or 0.0001%). The vast majority of adverse reactions, including rashes and fevers that occur in 5% and 16% of cases, respectively, are both temporary and mild.    -(Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Vaccines & Immunization: Possible Side-effects from Vaccines: MMR Vaccine Side-effects, http://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/vac-gen/side-effects.htm#mmr)

Even with the rarity of severe reactions, clinicians discourage the vaccination of children if they show signs of susceptibility to those reactions. Clinicians also discourage vaccination of children who are not well enough to receive the vaccine (eg those undergoing treatment for cancer or those who have HIV/AIDS).    -(Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Vaccine Information Statement: MMR Vaccine, http://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/hcp/vis/vis-statements/mmr.pdf)

 

There are likely many reasons for people’s refusal to vaccinate. There is a fear of side effects, probably made more frightening by lack of a clear understanding of the actual risks (of both vaccination and lack thereof). In addition, the perception of an immediate threat can feel more tangible than what may seem a distant possibility. This can lead people to react to the immediate fear (vaccination), while ignoring seemingly amorphous, distant concerns. Popularized opinions on social media, among celebrities, and even within the medical community itself can easily feed on these fears. Complacency about the measles may also play a part. By 2000 the disease was almost completely eradicated. This caused the measles to be placed on the back burner, no longer a source of fear for the general populace.

The insularity of certain portions of the frum community may also play a part. To a degree, the issue may be a lack of education. Within closed communities, opinion and supposition can masquerade as fact, inhibiting true research and education.

Another issue relates to the reasons for a group’s insularity. When a sub-community is purposefully separated from the world at large, it is often to separate their belief system from that of the general population. Unfortunately, in this instance this may have generalized to include the medical community. This can create for a sense of “our belief system versus theirs,” leading to a sense that the opinions of the medical community are suspect.

Since the measles is highly contagious, anti-vaxxers need to understand that they are not only placing their families and communities at risk, but that their refusal to vaccinate places the entire country—and indeed the entire world—in jeopardy of a significant measles outbreak.

Yehuda Lieberman, LCSW

 psychotherapist in private practice

 Brooklyn, NY   |   Far Rockaway, NY

 author of Self-Esteem: A Primer

 www.ylcsw.com / 718-258-5317