Clarrie Feinstein

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The measles outbreak in New York City has engaged multiple spheres in the city, politicians, health professionals, policy makers and of course, the ultra-orthodox Jewish community, in one of the city’s worst outbreaks in recent history. So far, 285 cases of measles has been detected in the Jewish community with 246 of these cases in children 18 and younger, since October, with most cases occurring in the last two months.

Last week, the outbreak officially hit a crisis point for the city.

Mayor Bill de Blasio declared the outbreak a public health emergency. “We are here in Williamsburg today to deal with a very serious situation. This is the epicenter of a measles outbreak that is very, very troubling and must be dealt with immediately,” the Mayor said during a news conference. “The only way to stop this outbreak is to ensure that those who have not been vaccinated get the vaccine. It’s crucial for people to understand the measles vaccine works. It is safe; it is effective, it is time tested.”

The New York City Department of Health officially released an order for all yeshivas in Williamsburg to ensure unvaccinated students do not attend school, otherwise the schools could face possible violations, and even closures.

“As a pediatrician, I know the MMR vaccine is safe and effective. This outbreak is being fueled by a small group of anti-vaxxers in these neighborhoods. They have been spreading dangerous misinformation based on fake science,” said Health Commissioner Dr. Oxiris Barbot. “We stand with the majority of people in this community who have worked hard to protect their children and those at risk. We’ve seen a large increase in the number of people vaccinated in these neighborhoods, but as Passover approaches, we need to do all we can to ensure more people get the vaccine.”

The order is already in effect, with a closure of the United Talmudical Academy, a child care center in Williamsburg for failing to provide vaccination records.

For Chabad of Bushwick’s Rabbi Menachem Heller, the closures are an extreme measure, “I don’t think it’s the right way to go about it,” said Rabbi Heller. “It doesn’t sound good to just close schools down. It’s easier to target private institutions. Would they threaten to get all kids to stop going to school if it was a public school? It feels a bit like being bullied.”  

Jewish Orthodox family, courtesy of David Howard.

But the Department of Health states they are not targeting the Jewish community, but are using a data-driven approach to take action. “We’re working to protect those that are the highest risk of contracting the virus,” says Department of Health spokesperson Michael Lanza. “This outbreak has occurred within and the cases are associated with the Orthodox Jewish community and we have seen transmission occur in yeshivas and yeshiva-based child care programs.”

While the latest order has created tension amongst the ultra-orthodox Jewish community and the City of New York, the majority of the community is vaccinated.

“I am all for vaccination,” said Rabbi Heller. “My whole family is vaccinated. It’s not fair for the people who believe in vaccination. It’s medically proven. A lot of the families go to their doctor’s regularly, doctors are like god to them. There needs to be a stronger stance within the medical community to tell people about the benefits of vaccination.”

In the ultra-orthodox community misinformation has been circling regarding the effectiveness of vaccinations. The “Vaccine Safety Handbook” declares that vaccinations are the greatest threat to public health, stating, “Vaccines contain monkey, rat and pig DNA as well as cow-serum blood, all of which are forbidden for consumption according to kosher dietary law.”

Since last October, the Department of Health says they have conducted extensive outreach in the community. There have been robo-calls to 30,000 households with more to come ahead of Passover, letters have been sent to principals and parents, three rounds of ads in 18 papers and outreach to all relevant elected officials, including elected notifications with weekly updates to the case counts.

“I can tell you not getting vaccinated is not some organized idea within the community,” said Rabbi Heller. “The parents want what is best for their children. It just comes down to the doctors educating them on what is best.”

Cover image courtesy of Pixabay.

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