535 Measles Cases Recorded in N.Y.C., Some Recent Cases Don't Involve Haredi Jews

While 78 percent of measles cases remain confined to the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Williamsburg, there have now been 12 new confirmed cases outside the community

File photo: A sign warning people of measles in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community of Williamsburg is seen in New York, U.S., April 11, 2019.
Shannon Stapleton / Reuters

NEW YORK — The number of measles cases recorded in the current outbreak in New York has climbed to 535. Some of the most recent cases do not involve ultra-Orthodox Jews, the city’s health department said on Friday.

Seventy-eight percent of measles cases remain confined to the neighborhood of Williamsburg, home to a large ultra-Orthodox (or Haredi) community. However, there have now been 12 confirmed cases outside of the community in Brooklyn's Sunset Park, four of which were recorded last week.

New York City Health Department said it is expanding its outreach to raise awareness and promote vaccination in Spanish and Chinese, in addition to English and Yiddish, as of next week.

>> Read more: Unvaccinated children face public space ban in New York measles outbreak ■ Why Orthodox Jewish communities are at the center of a U.S. measles outbreak

Since the outbreak began last October, the health department said there have been 40 hospitalizations and 11 admissions to intensive care units due to complications.

The current outbreak is the worst the city has seen since 1991. It began after a traveler became infected with the disease during a trip to Israel, spreading the virus among unvaccinated people in the dense Orthodox Jewish community of New York when he returned home.

Last month, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio declared a public health emergency to tackle the disease. Under the declaration, every child over six months of age living in affected areas is required to get the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine. Schools serving the Orthodox Jewish community must also prove that all their students are vaccinated.

There have been 122 summonses subject to fines to individuals for being noncompliant with the emergency order since it was declared. Several Jewish schools in Brooklyn and one in Queens have also been temporarily shut down.

Any person receiving a summons is entitled to a hearing, and if the hearing officer upholds the summons, a $1,000 penalty is imposed. Failure to appear at the hearing or to respond to the summons, the city says, will result in a $2,000 fine.

“Williamsburg remains the epicenter of this outbreak, though we have seen some cases in people outside of the Orthodox Jewish community,” said New York City Health Commissioner Dr. Oxiris Barbot.

“Given the high vaccination rates in Sunset Park, we do not foresee sustained transmission in this neighborhood. However, measles is extremely contagious and I strongly urge unvaccinated New Yorkers to immediately get the vaccine. ... All New Yorkers should get vaccinated or confirm their immunity status with their doctor,” Barbot said.

Despite calls by prominent rabbis and leaders for children to be vaccinated, a minority of ultra-Orthodox Jews in the city have subscribed to the anti-vaxxer movement and expressed strong opposition to the mayor’s emergency order.

Jewish organizations and community members have also raised concerns that the outbreak may exacerbate anti-Semitic sentiment in the city, as the crisis has been associated with Orthodox Judaism.

“In Jewish text, one is obligated to do everything in their power to keep their body healthy,” Avi Greenstein, CEO of the Borough Park Jewish Community Council, told Haaretz in April.

“The anti-vaxxers are a minute of a minute sector that are part of our community. But rabbis, community leaders, heads of schools, heads of synagogues, everyone, every single one of those strongly supported for vaccination.

“Unfortunately, when you look back in history, haters have always found opportunities, they’ve always leached onto certain occurrences to say ‘This is the fault of the Jews’ — and that [resulted in] the most terrible tragedies which unfortunately we endured,” Greenstein added.

Measles is a highly contagious disease that can be transmitted through the air from sneezing, coughing or sharing germs with an infected person through touching the same surfaces. It can cause complications such as pneumonia, brain swelling and death.

To contain the disease, the city has been publishing ads and distributing educational materials in affected neighborhoods as well as conducting robocalls and sending text messages to Haredi community members. Some of the efforts have been criticized for not including community leaders or being written in incorrect Yiddish.

The efforts have paid off so far with over 25,000 doses of MMR administered to children under the age of 18 in Williamsburg and Borough Park since October 2018 — over 11,000 more doses than the same period the previous year.