A group of parents in Brooklyn is suing the New York City health department for ordering mandatory measles vaccinations in parts of the borough earlier this month amid a growing outbreak of the highly contagious virus.
The mandate, which affects four ZIP codes in the Williamsburg area largely inhabited by an Orthodox Jewish community, is a violation of public health law, according to the lawsuit, filed Monday in Kings County Supreme Court.
Five mothers, identified only by their initials in the complaint, say they oppose vaccinating their children with the MMR vaccine, which protects against measles, mumps and rubella, for religious reasons. They’re seeking a temporary restraining order against the mandate, calling it “capricious” and “contrary to law.”
New York law requires every student entering or attending public, private or parochial school to receive a cocktail of immunizations, though medical and religious exemptions are allowed.
Many Orthodox Jews believe vaccinations run counter to Jewish or Talmudic law, leading to low vaccination rates in some communities, despite some rabbis who warn it’s a mistaken belief with potentially dire consequences.
A mounting measles outbreak in the Williamsburg area prompted New York health officials to issue the mandate on April 9 requiring all people who live or work within ZIP codes 11205, 11206, 11211 and 11249 to receive the MMR vaccine if they haven’t already.
As of Monday, there were at least 267 confirmed measles cases in Williamsburg since September ― 39 of which were reported in the past week. New York health officials say Jewish yeshivas and day care centers are of particular concern.
At least one day care center in Williamsburg has been shut down since the mandate went into effect last week for failing to provide vaccination records for students and staff to the health department. More than 20 yeshivas and day care centers have received citations for violating the order.
In their lawsuit, the parents argue the city’s response to the measles outbreak has been “irrational” and that it doesn’t pose a clear danger to public health.
One to two children out of every 1,000 who contract the disease die from it, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“We try always to respect religious rights, religious customs, but when it comes to public health, when we see a problem emerge, we have to deal with it aggressively,” New York Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) said last week. “We are absolutely certain this is an appropriate use of our emergency powers.”
Failure to comply with the April 9 order is a misdemeanor that could result in various penalties, including criminal fines or imprisonment, officials warned.
In their lawsuit, the parents of unvaccinated children say the mandate is causing “irreparable harm” and complained that they’re being “treated like pariahs.”
“Parents, whose religious beliefs are being disregarded, risk becoming criminals if they simply do nothing,” according to the lawsuit. “Parents who know their children’s health status better than anyone else are being threatened with the forced vaccination of their children against their wills.”
The order, issued by New York City Health Commissioner Oxiris Barbot, remains in effect until a New York City Board of Health meeting scheduled for Wednesday when it will be decided whether to continue or rescind the mandate.
Measles cases in the U.S. are at the second-highest level in 25 years, with the number expected to rise, according to figures released by the CDC on Monday.
The virus was nearly eliminated in the U.S. in 2000, but the CDC reports a growing number of unvaccinated communities is causing outbreaks to rise again.