A recent New York Times article on the measles outbreaks that have occurred in scattered parts of the United States was illustrated with a picture of a ḥasidic Jew walking down a street. But while popular perception has given the impression that, at least in the New York metropolitan area, ultra-Orthodox Jews who refuse to vaccinate their children are the cause of the epidemic, the truth is somewhat different, as Daniel Berman and Awi Federgruen write:
In this year’s U.S. measles outbreak, parts of Brooklyn and Rockland County have experienced two-thirds of the reported 704 infections. The media generally blame an alleged low vaccination rate in these areas, each with a large percentage of ultra-Orthodox Jews. . . . However, the New York State Health Department reports the average vaccination rate for measles among the nearly 200 Jewish K-12 schools in Brooklyn—mainly in [in the ḥasidic enclaves of] Borough Park and Williamsburg—is 96 percent, six percentage points higher than the statewide average among private schools. In contrast, six other New York counties have a vaccination rate below 50 percent.
Moreover, the measles vaccination rate among Jewish school-age children is above the assumed 95-percent threshold required for “herd immunity,” i.e., protection of the community from sustained outbreaks.
What, then, explains the outbreak? Regardless of the vaccination rate, some communities have characteristics that enhance and sustain epidemics. Population density and a community’s social-mixing patterns are two critical determinants of whether an outbreak dies out or remains sustained. Orthodox Jewish communities are densely populated. Families have many children and interact frequently. . . . [I]n a densely populated and highly interactive community, the average infected individual transmits measles to 24 others, and then 99 percent of the community must be vaccinated in order to ensure herd immunity. . . .
It is time to stop vilifying the Orthodox Jewish community when the data show their vaccination rates are as high as any. Continuing to blame this segment of the Jewish community—especially in the news media—is not only wrong. It actually jeopardizes the cooperation that is necessary to stem the outbreak. . . .