New York City declares health emergency over measles outbreak in Williamsburg

Grant Boone
April 11, 2019

New York City declared a public health emergency Tuesday and ordered mandatory vaccinations for measles in a part of Brooklyn that is home to a large Orthodox Jewish community.

Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the unusual order on Tuesday (local time) amid what he said was a measles crisis in Brooklyn's Williamsburg section, where more than 250 people have contracted measles since September. Also each year, among reported cases, an estimated 400 to 500 people died, 48,000 were hospitalized, and 1,000 suffered encephalitis (swelling of the brain) from measles.

NY has declared a public health emergency to deal with a measles outbreak that seems likely to become the country's worst in 20 years.

Health officials have largely blamed the outbreaks on small but vocal anti-vaccine advocates who scare well-meaning parents by spreading risky lies and misinformation about life-saving vaccines and their safety. None proved fatal, but 21 patients required hospitalization and five were admitted to intensive care.

"We will consider [forcible vaccinations] on a case-by-case basis", said mayoral spokeswoman Marcy Miranda, adding that the drastic measure is "not our first choice".

It said the vaccine was 97 per cent effective.

Deliberately exposing a child to chickenpox comes with risks.

"Measles are highly risky and contagious", Councilmember Stephen Levin, whose district includes Williamsburg, told the Brooklyn Eagle. "We stand with the majority of people in this community who have worked hard to protect their children and those at risk".

These days, exposure parties are largely a thing of the past. The vaccine offers the same immunity boost without the ordeal of enduring the virus.

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To date, 285 cases have been confirmed since the beginning of the outbreak in October, with many of these new cases being confirmed in the last two months.

As The Washington Post's Frances Stead Sellers reported, government pushes for inoculations and the barring of unvaccinated children from public spaces have prompted a backlash among anti-vaccination activists, whose misinformation campaigns have led to declines in immunizations against one of the world's most contagious diseases. But vaccination rates have declined in recent years, according to infectious disease experts.

"It's true that a lot of people have measles and measles are not a very good thing, but I think the vaccine also not a very good thing", Williamsburg resident Aron Braver said.

The emergency warning covers certain postcodes in Brooklyn. People who haven't received the measles vaccine or don't have evidence of immunity could be fined up to $1,000.

Community leaders and doctors welcomed the move. 'The schools are cooperating, everyone's cooperating'.

"We try to control our school, and we really strive to comply 100% with the Department of Health", he said. "We've seen a large increase in the number of people vaccinated in these neighbourhoods". 'They will do anything and everything to improve the health of their children'. His county, which has sizeable Orthodox Jewish communities with close ties to Brooklyn, has logged 168 measles cases since last fall. "It's much more a Williamsburg problem than a Borough Park problem".

In New York City late a year ago, the health department ordered yeshivas and child-care centers in the Orthodox Jewish community to bar unvaccinated students.

Another outbreak has hit Orthodox Jewish families in New York's Rockland County.

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