A measles outbreak in Brooklyn, primarily among Orthodox Jewish children, prompted New York City on Tuesday to declare a public health emergency, requiring unvaccinated people in the affected areas to get the vaccine or face fines.
The city’s largest outbreak since 1991 of the once virtually eradicated virus has mainly been confined to the Orthodox Jewish community in the borough’s Williamsburg neighbourhood, with 285 cases confirmed since October, Mayor Bill de Blasio said at a news conference. That’s up sharply from only two reported cases in all of 2017.
“This is the epicentre of a measles outbreak that is very, very troubling and must be dealt with immediately,” de Blasio said. He was joined by city health officials who decried what they called “misinformation” spread by opponents of vaccines.
The measles virus is highly contagious and can lead to serious complications and death. While there have been no confirmed deaths so far, 21 people have been hospitalised, with five admitted to intensive care, officials said. All but 39 of the confirmed cases are in children.
The outbreak is part of a broader resurgence in the United States, with 465 cases reported in 19 states so far this year, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The United States in 2000 declared measles eliminated from the country thanks to widespread vaccination, meaning it was no longer constantly present. But vaccination rates have declined in recent years, according to infectious disease experts.
The Brooklyn outbreak has been traced to an unvaccinated child who became infected on a visit to Israel, which is also grappling with an outbreak, according to New York City’s Department of Health.
Officials from the Department of Health will check vaccination records of anyone who has been in contact with infected patients in certain parts of Brooklyn, officials said.
They will impose fines of up to $1,000 on those who have not received the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine and cannot give other evidence of immunity, such as having previously had the measles.
It is the first time New York City has ordered mandatory vaccinations in recent history, according to health officials.
‘Phoney articles and studies’
Community leaders welcomed the move.
“We will make sure that everybody who is allowed will be vaccinated,” Rabbi David Niederman, the president of the United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg, said in a phone interview. “The schools are cooperating, everyone’s cooperating.”
He said he had seen anti-vaccination booklets and misinformation circulating around the tightly knit community but that most families trusted the Health Department.
“You get phoney, phoney articles and studies, so yes, some people will fall for that,” he said. “They will do anything and everything to improve the health of their children.”
The mandatory vaccination order follows an order from the Health Department last week requiring yeshivas and day-care programs serving Williamsburg’s Orthodox Jewish community to exclude unvaccinated children or face fines or closure.
Another outbreak has hit Orthodox Jewish families in New York’s Rockland County. Officials there banned children not vaccinated against measles from public spaces last month.
That order was overturned by a state judge on Friday, local media reported. The order is being appealed by Rockland officials.
Federal officials are also tracking outbreaks in New Jersey, California, Michigan, and Washington state.
A growing and vocal fringe of parents oppose vaccinations, believing, contrary to scientific evidence, that ingredients in the vaccines can cause autism or other disorders.
City officials also expressed alarm at reports of parents holding “measles parties,” where they intentionally expose their unvaccinated children to an infected child in the mistaken belief doing so is a safe means to create immunity.
“I understand that parents may be afraid of getting their children vaccinated,” said Health Commissioner Oxiris Barbot. “I know that getting vaccinated is far safer than getting measles.”