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Measles Outbreak Hits Borough Park and Williamsburg, Officials Say

By Amy Zimmer | May 14, 2013 6:46am
 A measles outbreak has hit Borough Park and Williamsburg.
A measles outbreak has hit Borough Park and Williamsburg.
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BROOKLYN — A measles outbreak has hit Borough Park and spread to Williamsburg, health officials said.

There have been 21 reported measles cases in Borough Park and one case in Williamsburg so far this year, affecting residents in those areas' ultra-orthodox Jewish communities, according to the city's Department of Health. Those who were infected, ranging in age from 10 months to 32 years old, have all recovered, officials said.

The first case in this recent outbreak was imported from London when someone in a family who refused vaccinations picked up the bug and brought it back to Brooklyn, health officials said. The majority of the others here who caught the illness were from families who refused vaccinations as well, officials said.

It is the fourth time the disease has taken hold in Borough Park since 2008.

Like Borough Park, London also has a large ultra-Orthodox Jewish community with families that have an anti-vaccination attitude, said Rabbi Moshe Tendler, the Rabbi Isaac and Bella Tendler professor of Jewish medical ethics and professor of biology at Yeshiva University. 

“It has nothing to do with religion,” Tendler said. “Most likely there’s a failure in their understanding of exactly what modern medicine is, largely due to the fact that so many of the families have not had a secular education."

It’s not only religious communities that have an aversion to vaccinations, Tendler noted.

“I found it true here as well as in England: There is a heavy reliance on what’s called by us here in America ‘pseudo science,’ or perhaps a better term is holistic medicine — a reliance on herbals,” he said.

The overall immunization rate among Orthodox Jewish groups in New York City is similar to that for other communities, health officials said. The Department of Health and Mental Hygiene did not immediately provide statistics on immunization rates.

But Tendler said some private schools in Orthodox neighborhoods are not as stringent about vaccine requirements as public schools.

“There is a laxity concerning health regulations,” Tendler said. “It’s not part of the educational process. But measles is not a minor disease; in adults it is even more severe, and measles in pregnant women is particularly dangerous.”

Measles outbreaks occurred in Borough Park in 2008, when there were 30 cases citywide; in 2009, there were 18 cases; and in 2011, there was a rise in measles internationally and the city saw 25 cases, according to the Department of Health. 

Last year, the city only had five measles cases, health officials said.

“Measles is a very preventable disease,” said Dr. Jonathan Jacobs, professor of clinical medicine and an infectious disease specialist at Weill Cornell Medical College. “Some people don’t get vaccinated, which is quite dangerous. It is a very infectious disease. You can get it by being in the same air space as someone. But unless everyone is vaccinated it means we’ll always have some measles that will be transmitted.”

Jacobs blamed some of the anti-vaccine sentiment on bogus studies circulating on the Web.

“Some people read on the Internet that vaccinations are bad for you, so they don’t vaccinate their children,” he said. “There’s a whole Web literature that’s not documented or scientifically based. The vaccine is excellent and safe and people should take advantage of it.”

The health department warned of additional cases because of the large number of people exposed to the illness in the community. It was working closely with medical providers in the affected communities, officials said.

If someone has been exposed to a patient with measles they can get vaccinated within 72 hours, medical professionals said.

Outbreaks of the highly contagious illness can occur in any neighborhood with infants too young to be vaccinated or even with just a few residents who refuse to get vaccinated, according to health officials. Children should get the first dose of the measles-mumps-rubella vaccination when they are 12 months old and the second dose at age 4 to 6. Delaying the first dose can increase the number of susceptible individuals and the risk of measles outbreaks.

All of the people affected this year recovered without hospitalization, health officials said.