The Jewish contribution to public health has been monumental. Consider Paul Ehrlich and Eli Metchnikoff, who shared the 1908 Nobel prize in medicine for their work on a theory of immunity; penicillin researcher Ernst Chain, another Nobel winner; and, of course, Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin, who developed vaccines that defended generations of people from the scourge of polio.
The work of these physicians and chemists, and the careful research that sprang up around their discoveries, led to a revolution in public health. Diseases that killed and maimed children and adults were all but eradicated. Careful protocols were put in place to assure that the most good would come from the least amount of harm.
And now their legacy and science is under attack. A recent measles outbreak originating at Disneyland has underscored the danger of declining immunization rates. Helped along by an anti-immunization movement that traffics in fear and junk science, and cynical politicians who exploit the doubts they sow, diseases that had been tamed or nearly eradicated — like measles and whooping cough — are on the rebound, endangering a new generation.
JTA reports that many parents who refuse to vaccinate their children tend to be concentrated in “affluent, well-educated areas of major U.S. cities — areas that also encompass the majority of Jewish day schools, several of which have non-immunization rates as high as 26 percent.” Schools with relatively low opt-out rates pose dangers not only to the individual child, but children too young to be vaccinated and individuals with compromised immune systems.
Jewish scholars agree that vaccinations are required under Jewish law, save for medical exceptions. Vaccinations are considered “pikuach nefesh” — a legal standard that suspends religious requirements to protect human life. In Israel, rabbinic authorities are nearly unanimous in supporting a nationwide campaign to vaccinate children against polio.
The Torah commands us not to stand idly by over our neighbor’s blood. In the clear absence of scientific evidence to the contrary, we must consider vaccinations not only kosher, but commanded.