New York City on Tuesday took the highly unusual step of declaring a public health emergency in parts of Brooklyn, ordering mandatory measles vaccinations amid a broad ― and growing ― outbreak of the highly contagious virus there.
The order focuses on four ZIP codes in the Williamsburg area inhabited by a large Orthodox Jewish community: 11205, 11206, 11211 and 11249.
Since Sept. 30, the area has produced 285 measles cases, city officials said at a press conference Tuesday, including 246 children. Of the 285, 21 people have been hospitalized and five have been admitted to the intensive care unit.
While a public campaign launched in coordination with local community leaders has resulted in 8,000 vaccinations in the area, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said it wasn’t sufficient. An estimated 1,800 children in the neighborhood are still unvaccinated, so it was “time to take a more muscular approach,” he said.
Reports of people hosting “measles parties” to deliberately expose their children to the illness added additional urgency. Per the CDC, one to two children out of every 1,000 who contract the disease die from it.
Many Orthodox Jews believe vaccinations run counter to Jewish or Talmudic law, leading to low vaccination rates in some communities. Dr. Aaron Glatt, a rabbi and the chairman of the department of medicine at South Nassau Communities Hospital on Long Island, told Kaiser Health News last month it’s a mistaken belief.
“There’s not a single opinion that says vaccination is against Jewish law,” he told the outlet.
Of particular concern to health officials are Jewish yeshivas and daycare centers, which act as a hub for the outbreak. In December, New York ordered yeshivas not to admit non-vaccinated children until the outbreak passed. One yeshiva in Williamsburg failed to comply and is responsible for at least 40 cases of the disease.
“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,” de Blasio said. “We are absolutely certain this is an appropriate use of our emergency powers.”
Parents can call 311 to arrange vaccinations or visit the New York City Health Department website for more information. Parents or guardians who fail to comply face fines of up to $1,000.
“Vaccines are safe,” Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services Herminia Palacio said Tuesday. “They are required.”
“They are in fact much safer than getting an actual disease,” she said. “This is not some little cold; people can be hospitalized; they can get pneumonia; they can get inflammation of the brain; they can die. This is serious.”