WASHINGTON - For months, New York City has been fighting a measles outbreak in the Orthodox Jewish community. The mayor finally declared a public health emergency April 9 because measles continue to spread among unvaccinated children. Parents who refuse to vaccinate now face heavy fines.
Brooklyn is a borough in New York City known for its tight-knit, ultra-Orthodox Jewish community. Women wear long, modest dresses, and the men are recognizable in large-brimmed hats and long black coats.
About 100,000 Orthodox Jews live in Brooklyn. It’s in this community where measles has been spreading since an unvaccinated child brought the virus back from a visit to Israel last October. The inability to contain the outbreak prompted Mayor Bill de Blasio to declare a public health emergency.
“We have a situation now where children are in danger,” de Blasio said.
De Blasio ordered mandatory vaccinations in the Orthodox neighborhoods. Unvaccinated children will not be allowed to attend school, and their parents may face steep fines.
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Their religion does not prohibit immunization, and city health commissioner Dr. Oxiris Barbot says the duration of this outbreak is alarming.
“We’ve worked closely with the community religious leaders and schools to make sure that vulnerable people are kept safe during this outbreak and to challenge the dangerous misinformation that is being spread by a group of anti-vaxxers,” she said.
Schools honor emergency
The ParCare Community Health Network caters to Orthodox families. Gary Schlesinger is its chief executive. He told VOA that the private, religious schools these children attend will honor the terms of the emergency declaration.
“They were very clear that they will unequivocally deny any parent who does not vaccinate their children,” he said.
Schlesinger says about 100 families are solidly against vaccines because they mistakenly believe vaccines cause autism or even death. These are some of the same beliefs people in other, secular communities hold.
Dr. Camille Sabella at the Cleveland Clinic says multiple studies involving hundreds of thousands of children prove that the measles vaccine is safe.
“It really is an incredibly safe vaccine. We’ve been using it since the 1960s in this country, and it has an outstanding safety record,” he said.
There have been more than 400 measles cases in 19 states just this year, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
Health officials are concerned because measles outbreaks can also be a sign that children aren’t being vaccinated against other deadly diseases, as well.