St. Louis Orthodox rabbis encourage vaccination after measles outbreaks elsewhere


By Eric Berger, Associate Editor

Rabbis in the St. Louis Orthodox Jewish community recently launched a campaign to encourage members of their synagogues to obtain measles vaccinations in response to outbreaks in Detroit, New York and Israel.

The clergy coordinated with the St. Louis County Department of Public Health and sent emails to congregants because of a particular concern over the increased travel to other Jewish communities for Passover. 

There have been 626 cases of measles in 22 states confirmed this year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. An outbreak in ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities in Brooklyn, N.Y. prompted Mayor Bill De Blasio to earlier this month declare a public health emergency requiring that individuals in neighborhoods where the disease has appeared receive the measles vaccine. 

But the outbreak that was most concerning to the St. Louis rabbis occurred in Detroit, where a man who traveled to the city from an ultra-Orthodox community in Brooklyn unknowingly infected 39 people, according to the Washington Post. 

A Detroit rabbi there was infected with measles despite the fact that he received a vaccination as a child, so he thought he was immunized against the disease. But the 55 year old had not received the second dose, which the CDC began recommending in 1989, so the rabbi was still vulnerable to the disease. He recovered from the sickness and recorded a YouTube video earlier this month urging communities to launch education programs and people between the ages of 30 and 62 to receive a second dose. 

Rabbi Moshe Shulman of Young Israel of St. Louis coordinated with an infectious disease specialist, Dr. Morey Gardner, to create a memo with data on the disease and information on where people can receive vaccinations, which they then sent to congregants. Shulman said he had not received the second dose and after watching the YouTube video, contacted his doctor. 

“I don’t think it’s an Orthodox issue,” said Shulman. “I think anybody who falls into that (age group) should get tested or get a second vaccine.”

He and the other Orthodox rabbis also coordinated with the county public health department to prepare staff there to accommodate a larger number of people seeking vaccinations at one time to help expedite the process.

There have been no reported measles cases in St. Louis County this year, according to the public health department. 

“I would say that measles is a concern that always requires vigilance,” said Spring Schmidt, acting co-director of the public health department. “By and large in St. Louis we have very good participation.”

On Monday morning, about 10 Orthodox Jews walked into the public health department over a 30-minute period.

After receiving emails from three local Orthodox synagogues, Shifra Newman visited the clinic for a vaccination because she “thought it was the right thing to do,” she said. Like the Detroit rabbi, Newman thought she was fully immunized because of her childhood vaccination. Her children are also all vaccinated and she does not encounter people at her synagogue, U. City Shul, who are opposed to vaccination. 

“Most people that I know all vaccinate their children,” said Newman, who works as an office manager at H.F. Epstein Hebrew Academy. She describes the news coverage of the measles outbreaks as “anti-Orthodox.”

“When I see the media reports, it’s always showing the Orthodox communities, and there is measles in lots of different communities,” said Newman.

Indeed, there have been measles outbreaks in a Somali-American community in Minnesota and one linked to a California amusement park in recent years, according to the CDC.

Getting vaccinated for measles in St. Louis

MMR vaccinations are available in St. Louis through:

• Primary care physicians 

• At Walgreens-SSM Express Clinics

• At CVS Minute Clinics — Staffed by nurse practitioners who can prescribe vaccines. 

• At St. Louis County Department of Public Health locations at 6121 N. Hanley Road and 4580 S. Lindbergh Blvd. 

LEARN MORE ABOUT MEASLES: View a fact sheet on measles on the Center for Disease Control and Prevention website.