Lakewood, NJ: Failure to Vaccinate or Vaccine Failure?
On November 14, thousands congregated at the National Mall in Washington DC the V.I.E. (Vaccine Injury Epidemic) Event, calling on legislators to hear us out. But was anyone listening?
Apparently not in New Jersey.
In a letter dated November 14th, Senator Bob Menendez sent a letter to Mark Zuckerberg lamenting that New Jersey’s measles outbreak last winter, “has been fueled, in part, by misinformation about vaccine safety spread via Facebook ads”.
I live in Lakewood, where most of the NJ measles cases occurred. Early last winter, there were 30 documented cases of measles in Ocean County. Everyone recovered without incident and no serious complications were reported, but the Lakewood “outbreak” made national news and was used to amplify fears over what is a generally benign virus and create panic both within the community and throughout the state. Additionally, the outbreak was used to promote a sneaky legislative amendment that seeks to abolish religious exemptions in New Jersey. As winter approaches this year, it’s worth reviewing the facts on the ground.
Reviewing the facts
The fear mongering tactics prompted enough skepticism for some community members to pursue Freedom of Information Act (FOIA, known in NJ as Open Public Records Act [OPRA]) requests from various health and government agencies, and they yielded some interesting information.
Since 2008, CHEMED, an Ocean County health clinic has received more than $2 million from the State of New Jersey to increase vaccine uptake. Substantial efforts were directed towards promoting vaccine compliance in the non-public school population, but despite these efforts, religious exemption rates in this cohort more than doubled from 2.4% to 5.2% within the span of just a few years. Obviously, this did not bode well for the clinic’s future funding and public relations campaign. But rather than revisiting the concerns of those seeking exemptions, many officials dismissed these people as reckless, ignorant and in need of an education.
During the Lakewood measles outbreak, many private schools were actively encouraged to exclude children who had not received the MMR vaccine even though current public health policy does not call for exclusion of unvaccinated children from school unless there’s illness in that particular school . However, CHEMED successfully pressured the Ocean County Health Department (OCHD) to exclude all unvaccinated children from school until the outbreak ended. Additionally, children were banned from school for an arbitrary 42 days after the last reported case, allegedly to ensure no conceivable transmission. These sweeping school exclusions have no precedent in public health and are merely a social engineering tool used to force compliance.
Since many families who choose not to vaccinate are also not afraid of measles, the results of this overreaching and punitive policy were predictable: many parents opted to expose their children to measles. Then, after self-limiting symptoms and rapid recovery, the kids were able to bypass the extended exclusion period enforced by the health department and rejoin their friends at school. In effect, the clinic and OCHD incentivized families to get measles so that children could return to school, thereby magnifying the gravity of the outbreak they had the power to better contain.
Examining this “outbreak” more closely, 23 of 30 cases occurred in just four families. Of the remaining seven cases, six were among vaccinated individuals, including the “index case”, the first person to come down with the disease in Lakewood. The only other clear-cut case of measles was in a six-month old infant, too young to be vaccinated, who caught the disease directly from the index case and recovered uneventfully.
An additional 46 reported cases were either determined to be vaccine strains or failed to meet clinical criteria for measles. Many of these cases occurred days after vaccination, leading to the uncomfortable reality that the vaccine itself was causing measles. To the health department’s credit, unlike the Disneyland outbreak, these 46 cases were not added to the total tally of the measles outbreak.
Recognizing that people may be concerned by the vaccine’s apparent ineffectiveness or even disease-causing properties, the health department reassured people with the unsupported claim that if they were vaccinated and contracted measles, it would be “less severe illness”.
Vaccine failure and failure to vaccinate
In reality, the measles outbreak in Lakewood is a story at least as much about vaccine failure as it is about the failure to vaccinate. The index case was a vaccinated individual. In addition, many cases of those with “measles-like symptoms” implicated the vaccine itself.
In Lakewood, as elsewhere, many parents have stopped vaccinating because they have observed devastating vaccine injuries in their own families. New Jersey leads the nation in autism, and with an estimate of over 4,000 cases of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Ocean County may have the highest rate in New Jersey. The Orthodox Jewish community where the outbreak has occurred, is a very close-knit community. After witnessing a child’s regression into autism, or the development of another neurological or autoimmune condition that occurred in close proximity to the administration of a vaccination, they share their stories with friends and family. In Lakewood, “vaccine hesitancy” is based on reality, not rhetoric. People are concerned for the health of their children.
Ocean County health authorities have not sought to understand these concerns. By not following evidence-based practices they spread the measles, hurt families, scarred children and created the illusion that those who question vaccines are disease ridden. It is time to expand the conversation regarding vaccines beyond the initiatives that seek to vaccinate every person without consideration for individual needs and beliefs. We need to work toward a framework that listens to the concerns of families as we work to preserve and improve the health of our children.
 Justin Steiner is a pseudonym for the author who lives in Lakewood, NJ and prefers anonymity given the current controversy over vaccination.
 VPD Surveillance Manual, Measles: Chapter 7.15
 It should be highlighted that the State Health Department’s policy mirrored that of the CDC and staunchly advocated that unimmunized children should not be excluded.
And Plotkin, S.A. Et al. (2018). Vaccines 7th Edition, Elsevier, Inc., Ethics Chapter 84, Vaccination Requirements, Hesitancy, and Refusal.
 Conference call between NJDOH and OCHD on 12/14/18
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