The fast spread of measles by the New York neighborhood of Brooklyn on Tuesday forced Mayor Bill de Blasio to declare a state of sanitary emergency in four districts of Williamsburg, one of the main enclaves of the Orthodox Jewish community. The residents of the areas covered by the municipal order will have to be vaccinated compulsorily during the next two days. If they do not comply with the rules, they could be fined up to 1,000 dollars (887 euros). "There should be no doubt that the vaccines are safe, effective and save lives," justified the New York City councilman, who made the announcement from the public library in Williamsburg.
New York health authorities identified the first case in October: a child returning from a trip to Israel. Since then, the outbreak has become strong, with a majority of infected people among those under 18 who were not immunized. 280 affected people were counted in the city, out of a total of 495 in the US. It is an "urgent" problem that must be addressed "immediately," in the words of the mayor, which even contemplates closing the Yeshivas if the orthodox Jewish children who attend these schools do not get vaccinated. New York stepped up a campaign in February to inform the residents of Williamsburg and Borough Park about the need to get immunized. "It's the only way to stop it," he insists.
The City Health Department will proceed to review all vaccination records of neighbors who may have been in contact with affected by the outbreak.
The measles, mumps and rubella vaccine is mandatory for school-age children. Ultra-Orthodox families, however, welcome religious reasons to avoid it. Since November, health authorities have held meetings with their religious leaders and pediatricians to raise their awareness. "There is a lot of misinformation," Dr. Oxiris Barbot of the Health Department insisted on Tuesday.
Rejection of vaccines
Orthodox communities live isolated and reject any external interference in their rules. The decision of the mayor, as indicated by the organization Agudath Israel, creates tension. But there are less extreme leaders who are advising the members of their congregations to follow the recommendations of the health authorities. Gary Schlesinger points out that "measles does not distinguish between religions" and therefore considers that "everyone should get vaccinated".
Last December the Yeshivas were already ordered not to allow children without vaccines to attend school until the outbreak subsided. "I urge everyone, especially those who live in the affected areas, to get vaccinated to protect their children, their families and their neighbors," the mayor repeated at a press conference. From the first case in October, 280 cases were counted in the city.
It is the worst outbreak since 1991. New York is not the only one affected despite the fact that measles was eradicated in the US in the year 2000. The country is experiencing the second most important outbreak since then. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has 495 cases in 19 states this year. Of that total, a hundred were during the last week.
The health authorities of Rockland County, in the suburbs of New York, also dominated by the Orthodox Jewish community, two weeks ago, any unvaccinated minor could be in public places. The measure was in force for 30 days, when the declaration of emergency was scheduled to end, but a judge ordered it lifted. It is the most extreme measure so far.
The authorities attribute this situation to two factors that are also linked. First, the import of the disease from other countries or regions where there are outbreaks of measles. Second, for the movement against vaccines. The CDC, in fact, pointed out this week that most of the cases were individuals who were not properly protected against the virus.
Health officials insist that measles is very contagious. "If a person has it," warns the CDC, "90% of the people around them will be infected if they are not immune." The World Health Organization describes it as one of the main causes of mortality among children. And all this despite the fact that the vaccine is available and effective.