(By Rabbi Yair Hoffman for 5TJT.com)
Once again, the issue has arisen as to how much weight should be given to medical opinion when it comes to our public policy in matters of Pikuach Nefesh. Do we open our shuls just yet? When is the right time to reopen Yeshivos and chevrusah learning?
The polio vaccine may be instructive.
Those who grew up in the nineteen fifties remember it well. The fear throughout the country was palpable. True, polio epidemics had been in the United States since 1894, but the epidemic was never so virulent. In 1952, there were 57,879 cases. In that year there were also 3145 deaths from that disease, rachmana litzlan.And then on March 22, 1953, at 10:45 PM, Dr. Jonas Salk, a Jewish researcher from Brooklyn, announced on a CBS radio program that tremendous progress was being made. He said that clinical trials were optimistic but that there was still no vaccine available. Finally, on April 12th, 1955, Salk announced that a safe and effective vaccine was now available. The entire country let out a collective sigh of relief and Dr. Salk became a national hero.
Soon, the U.S. government went into action in regard to the Salk vaccine. On August 12th, The Poliomyelitis Vaccination Assistance Act of 1955 was passed. This established a temporary federal aid program that would help each state carry out mass inoculations with the Salk vaccine. On February 15, 1956 more funding was made available and the free vaccines were also made available to more people.
New Jersey’s then governor, the Honorable Robert Mayner, took New Jersey’s allocation and distributed the vaccine at no charge to as many New Jersey residents as he could.
One institution that received the vaccines was Beth Midrash Gavoha of Lakewood – then located at 617 7th Street at the corner of Forest Avenue. There were about 80 bochurim in the Yeshiva and a fledgling Kollel that numbered about one dozen.
A nurse was dispatched to the Yeshiva to administer the vaccines, paid for by the state of New Jersey. At the time, there were both questions and dissent. “Is it safe?” “Should we take this injection?” There were a number of people that eschewed the advice of doctors and were not supportive of the vaccine. But soon enough, the dissent was rapidly dispelled.
One of the very first people to get the vaccine, was none other than BMG’s own Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Aharon zt”l himself. He did so to dispel the notion of ignoring the advice of doctors.
“I remember being right outside his office at the time,” recalled Rav Yaakov Schnaidman, the current Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva Beis Moshe in Scranton. “There were a few other bochurim there. Rav Aharon rolled up his sleeve and received the injection. After that, there was just no more dissent.”
Rav Aharon’s office was an outside porch that was covered and glass panes were put up around so everyone could see inside. His office door was always open. Aside from the Bais Medrash there was a room outside and Rav Aharon’s office was adjacent to it.
Rav Yechiel Perr, Shlita, added, “Rav Aharon [zt”l], was very meticulous in listening to doctors. If a doctor instructed him to take his medication every four hours – he would look at his watch and take it every four hours – on the dot.”
In the 1950’s there were approximately 12,000 deaths from Polio and almost a quarter million Polio cases. Taking into account the population of the United States at the time this means that about 1 in 600 people were stricken by it. In the 1960’s, on account of the polio vaccines, In the 1960’s there were less than 2500 cases, and in the entire 1970’s there were only 171 total cases. This was on account of the vaccinations. In the 1980’s there were only 100 cases. In the 1990’s there were 59 cases and in the 2000’s there only two cases.
“The Polio vaccines were essential in virtually eliminating this disease from the country,” remarks Breindy Koschitzki a Nurse Practioner who specializes in Internal Medicine. “Nowadays, his vaccine is the only one in use in this country.” Rav Aharon Kotler zt”l’s initiative had, Boruch Hashem, set the tone that was necessary to ensure compliance with the vaccination program that saved so many lives. He also set the tone in following the prevalent medical and scientific advice on matters of Pikuach Nefesh.