Tensions Rise as New York City Steps Up Response to Measles

Tensions Rise as New York City Steps Up Response to Measles

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Vaccine skeptics were planning a lawsuit against New York City. A Hasidic woman was heckled when she boarded a public bus. Family members were avoiding weddings for fear of encountering unvaccinated relatives.

When Mayor Bill de Blasio announced on Tuesday an emergency health order requiring measles vaccinations, he said the step was necessary to curtail the large measles outbreak in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community. But as health officials plunged into Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood to enforce the mandate, tensions only escalated.

Mr. de Blasio’s effort seemed to mobilize an already well-organized network of vaccine skeptics. Their latest tactic: circulating court affidavits for community members to sign so they can express opposition to mandatory vaccinations ahead of a planned lawsuit.

“I am a religious Jew, whose religious convictions are being blatantly violated by the vaccine Diktats, which are a clear violation of the Nuremberg Code, which forbids forcing medical procedures on anyone without their fully-informed consent,” the form says.

It continues: “Childhood diseases, like measles and chickenpox, unlike smallpox and ebola, are not a legitimate public health menace, and do not justify an emergency declaration.”

On Tuesday, Mr. de Blasio said unvaccinated residents in certain ZIP codes in Brooklyn must receive a measles vaccination or face a $1,000 fine. The next day, 20 city health inspectors began auditing vaccination records at yeshivas, and 15 disease detectives started interviewing those who had potentially been exposed to the highly contagious virus, the Health Department said.

But many who support vaccines say they worry that the city is missing the mark by not addressing the crucial issue: the misinformation flooding Hasidic communities that tells them to be wary of vaccines. Literature and hotlines spread debunked theories about immunizations, falsely warning that they cause autism and lead to other health problems.

Blima Marcus, an ultra-Orthodox nurse practitioner at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, said she understood the city’s actions, but she raised concerns about whether they would be effective. In the last week alone, 60 new cases of measles were confirmed in New York City, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and suburban Westchester County reported its first eight cases.

“It’s a public health problem,” Ms. Marcus said. “But ultimately, I don’t think it will help in the long term because this doesn’t get to the root of the problem, which is widespread misinformation and no corresponding education.”

Ms. Marcus said she and other Hasidic health professionals were putting the finishing touches on a pro-vaccination magazine and creating a hotline to dispel myths promulgated by the anti-vaccine movement. The magazine, which will be called Parents Informed and Educated, or Pie, is a direct response to Peach, a 40-page publication that is a main vehicle of misinformation.

“We’re seeing a lot more interest in people wanting to get involved,” Ms. Marcus said. “They’re really angry at the anti-vax movement. They’re ashamed.”

City officials say countering the anti-vaccine movement is a priority, and they are holding meetings with rabbis, doctors and community members. Health care providers have distributed 8,000 more vaccines between October and April than they did in the same period in the previous year, officials said.

But Dr. Peter Hotez, the director of the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development, echoed Ms. Marcus’s concerns, saying the city’s efforts could fall short.

“Unless you begin dismantling this anti-vaccine media empire, you’re not going to have a big impact on any specific public health measure,” he said.

In the wake of the emergency order, Jewish leaders say they fear a continued rise in anti-Semitism. In recent months, Hasidic neighborhoods have been the targets of a slew of anti-Semitic hate crimes, and Jewish leaders reported another one on Thursday.

Rabbi David Niederman, the president of the United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg, said a city bus driver tried to refuse service to a Hasidic woman in Brooklyn. The driver eventually let the woman board, Mr. Niederman said, but then shouted “measles” at her and directed her to move to the back of the bus.

Maxwell Young, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which oversees the city’s buses, said the agency was investigating the episode and had “absolutely zero tolerance for discrimination.”

Mr. de Blasio’s administration has also faced criticism for not reacting quickly enough to the measles outbreak, which began last fall after unvaccinated children returned from Israel.

“I don’t think they moved fast enough, but now that they’re moving, I’m with them,” said Arthur Caplan, a bioethicist at the New York University School of Medicine.

Mr. Caplan said that the emergency order was appropriate given the scale of the outbreak, and that he believed it would survive any legal challenges.

“There’s more saber rattling here than there is restriction of liberty,” he said.

Follow Tyler Pager on Twitter: @tylerpager.


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