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Measles Outbreak Worsens in Borough Park and Williamsburg

By Amy Zimmer | June 12, 2013 7:09am
 There have been 55 confirmed cases so far in the Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods, health officials said.
There have been 55 confirmed cases so far in the Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods, health officials said.
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BROOKLYN — A measles outbreak hitting the Orthodox Jewish enclaves of Borough Park and Williamsburg  — infecting 55 individuals this year to date — has health officials stepping up outreach efforts with local health providers and religious schools.

With 28 confirmed cases in Borough Park and 27 in Williamsburg, the number has more than doubled since DNAinfo reported on the outbreak less than a month ago.

Because of the large number of cases, the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene took an unusual step of recommending medical providers give the first dose of the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine at 6 months of age — instead of at 1 year when it's typically given — to all Orthodox Jewish children living in Borough Park, Williamsburg and Crown Heights. 

Officials also met with Borough Park school administrators and local leaders Tuesday night to further encourage parents to immunize their children and planned to hold a similar meeting in Williamsburg, officials said.

"All cases were in persons who were unvaccinated at the time of exposure, because they were too young to have been vaccinated or because their parents delayed or refused vaccine for their children," said an alert the health department sent to medical providers last week.  

The overwhelming majority of those infected were kids — 52 percent were from 1 to 4 years old, 29 percent were between the ages of 5 to 18 and 19 percent were less than 1 year old, the alert stated.

"People are taking it very personally," said a 51-year-old Borough Park grandmother, who declined to give her name.

"People in the community are vaccinating their children and getting angry at people who don't."

She said she recently overheard an argument where a woman yelled at a mother who didn't vaccinate, "'How dare you take my child's health into your hands?'"

While the MMR vaccination is mandated at all schools — including privately run yeshivas — sometimes unvaccinated students slip by, said Rabbi Yeruchim Silber, executive director of the Boro Park Jewish Community Council.

"The schools are overburdened, underfunded and understaffed," Silber said. "It sometimes falls through the cracks."

"Unfortunately, there seems to be a small minority that refuse to be immunized."

Vaccination rates in religious schools are generally high — roughly 95 percent — according to the health department, but officials wanted to talk with school administrators about their responsibilities with compliance to the state mandated immunizations.

As in other communities, some families in the affected neighborhoods fear the vaccination can cause autism  — even though that theory has been debunked, experts said.

The overall immunization rate among Orthodox Jewish groups in New York City was similar to that for other communities, health officials said. But Borough Park is frequently the epicenter of measles outbreaks and was hit by the illness in 2008, 2009 and 2011.

"We have a large population of children in schools, on playgrounds, in synagogues," Silber said. "Summer vacation is coming up. That's the most serious time because school is out. Kids are in day camp and bungalow colonies upstate. Pools and parks are full."

Two people have been hospitalized as a result of the outbreak, according to the health department, which typically sees five to 30 cases of measles in the city a year.

Health officials identified more than 2,000 people exposed to measles through relatives or friends, in apartment buildings and medical providers.

Even though no known cases have been found in Crown Heights, the health department targeted that neighborhood as well, to prevent the introduction of measles, officials said. 

The department also advised non-Orthodox children receiving medical care in practices that serve predominantly Orthodox Jewish patients to get the MMR vaccine at the age of 6 months. Infants who receive the vaccine early will have to get an additional dose at 12 months.

"I would say 99.9 percent of the people do vaccinate, but there are some people who believe differently and there's nothing we can do," said Gary Schlesinger, CEO of ParCare Health and Medical Center in Williamsburg.

"People are asking more about [getting the shots], especially those with infants," Schlesinger said. When a mother with an unvaccinated child came in with questions, "the doctor made it clear by not vaccinating you're putting everyone at risk."