BROOKLYN. N.Y. (CN) – An Orthodox Jewish enclave of Brooklyn faces a mandatory vaccination order after New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio declared a public health emergency Tuesday, responding to a measles outbreak that has sickened hundreds.
The order from Health Commissioner Oxiris Barbot calls for all adult residents of four zip codes to get themselves and their children vaccinated, unless they can otherwise demonstrate immunity. It will remain in place at least until April 17, at which time the New York City Board of Health will make a new determination.
Noncompliance with the order is punishable by a fine of $1,000.
Since the outbreak began in October, there have been 285 confirmed cases of measles concentrated in the tight-knit community of Orthodox Jews in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, according to a press release from the mayor’s office. Nearly 250 of those cases were children under 18. There have been no deaths associated with the outbreak, though people have suffered complications.
The measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine is highly effective, but relies on herd immunity, or vaccinating as many people as possible, to keep the diseases at bay.
“There’s no question that vaccines are safe, effective and life-saving,” said de Blasio. “I urge everyone, especially those in affected areas, to get their MMR vaccines to protect their children, families and communities.”
Some fear the measles outbreak will stoke anti-Semitic backlash, something that has already happened farther upstate in Rockland, where unvaccinated children were barred from public places.
De Blasio raised eyebrows yesterday when he framed the crisis as a “debate out there about vaccinations,” without specifying that vaccines are safe — though plagued by misinformation — and that people should use them. He later admitted he had misspoken.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, a fellow Democrat, has also stopped short of telling people to vaccinate, calling it a “First Amendment issue” and raising legal questions.
Representatives for Cuomo did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
In the New York Senate, a related bill introduced by Senator Brad Hoylman would bar people from citing religious beliefs as a reason not to vaccinate.
It’s not clear, however, that religious exceptions are at the root of the outbreak in Brooklyn. Some experts say the outbreaks are due in part to Orthodox Jewish communities’ being uniquely susceptible to misinformation from anti-vaxxers, due to their close-knit communities and separation from mainstream media.
“As a pediatrician, I know the MMR vaccine is safe and effective,” Health Commissioner Barbot said in a statement Tuesday. “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. We stand with the majority of people in this community who have worked hard to protect their children and those at risk.”
Barbot continued that she has seen a “large increase” in the number of people getting vaccinated, but that there is still work to be done.
An Amish community in Ohio and the Somali-American community in Minnesota have also both faced measles outbreaks in recent years after newcomers or outsiders introduced the virus to the small, close, unvaccinated communities.
When an outbreak rocked the Orthodox Jewish community in Rockland, the county executive there issued a March 26 order that required unvaccinated children to stay out of public spaces.
Judge Rolf M. Thorsen struck down the order this past Friday, however, while considering a challenge from a Jane Doe and her unvaccinated daughter.
David Niederman, executive director and president of the United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg Inc., did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday. The rabbi has told news outlets that unvaccinated children in Jewish communities are a minority, and that the religion encourages vaccination.