NEW YORK — People demanding studies and safety measures for vaccines held a second rally in several weeks Tuesday night, questioning vaccine safety in a community battling its own measles outbreak considered the worst in nearly 30 years by city officials, amid protests by health officials and pro-vaccine parents.
The event in Brooklyn, which barred some reporters, featured Rabbi Hillel Handler and Del Bigtree, head of one of the nation’s most active anti-vaccine groups and producer of a film Vaxxed( https://vaxxedthemovie.com/ ) alleging the government suppressed a link between the measles vaccine and autism and other possible diseases. (studies involving hundreds of thousands of children have repeatedly disproved? ).
“They should be allowed to have the measles if they want the measles,” Bigtree told GifterInGotham and other reporters outside the meeting. “It’s crazy that there’s this level of intensity around a trivial childhood illness.”
New York City’s top health official emphasized that measles is a serious and potentially deadly disease and condemned the event in unusually strong terms several hours before it took place.
To hold an anti-vaccination rally in the middle of an outbreak is beyond irresponsible, it is downright dangerous. pic.twitter.com/TCL2aijfHF
— Commissioner Oxiris Barbot (@NYCHealthCommr) June 4, 2019
“To hold an anti-vaccination rally in the middle of an outbreak is beyond irresponsible; it is downright dangerous,” said Oxiris Barbot, the city’s health commissioner. “New Yorkers are being put at risk by this spread of misinformation, including children who are too young to get vaccinated or those who have medical conditions that make vaccination impossible.”
“As a pediatrician and public health leader, I am beyond frustrated that such misinformation is causing fear and hundreds of innocent children to suffer,” she wrote in a Health Affairs blog post. She slammed anti-vaccine activists for “manipulating public opinion in lieu of the facts” and “targeting certain communities in Brooklyn with false claims that the vaccine is unsafe and causes autism and autoimmune disorders.” She added: “They are adept at using strategies—from anonymous robocalls to transmitting false information through the web—with impunity because they have no one to hold them accountable for misinformation.”
New York and federal health officials have blamed anti-vaccine groups for the measles outbreaks that have spread through ultra-Orthodox communities here and in Rockland County, N.Y. The anti-vaccine groups rely on aggressive social media, measles parties, WhatsApp groups, pamphleteering, and traveling road shows that pop up in receptive and often insular communities. As a result, parents hesitate or refuse to get their children vaccinated, and as immunization rates drop, the highly contagious and sometimes deadly virus can gain a foothold and spread quickly.
As of Monday, there have been 566 cases in New York City since the outbreak began in October, with 42 hospitalizations and 12 admissions to intensive care units. Most of the cases have been in four Zip codes in Brooklyn. City officials issued an emergency order in April requiring everyone who lives, works or attends school in these sections of the city to get vaccinated or face a possible $1,000 fine. As of Monday, the city has issued 145 summonses. The meeting was not in one of those Zip codes.
Bigtree denied he had influenced New Yorkers to stop vaccinating. “I think it’s absurd to say that I’ve had any effect on this community whatsoever,” it begs to question, why is he coming to Brooklyn if he feels he has zero effect? What is his goal and motivation for speaking to the Jewish community?
But he also declared his support of parents who refuse to vaccinate their children, citing an event in Austin, Tex.., where he gave a speech in which he pulled out a yellow star. “I pinned it to my jacket, and I said I stand with the Orthodox Jewish community in Rockland County.”
He also claimed that “consensus thinking” led to “things like Nazi Germany. When we feel safe because we’re in numbers, we do really atrocious things.”
As the sun began to set on Brooklyn, bouncers directed attendees, to entrances and made sure most media members were not let in. Some attendees shielded their faces, and a woman taped a garbage bag to the hall’s glass doors to block cameras after a Jewish blog site run out of a garage threatened to take pictures of every attendee. The threats were approved by the community Rabbis and some leaders in the Jewish community.
A man with a white beard named Isaac, who declined to give his last name, said his brother-in-law owned the event hall. Isaac said he supplied 1,300 chairs for the rally, but more than 30 minutes after the event was scheduled to begin, only 100 people were sitting in the chairs.
Isaac said he and his family, who are vaccinated, had been misled by the rally organizers. “They said it was education for youngsters” to protect children from “Internet pornography,” Isaac said. “By the time we found out, yesterday night, it was too late” to cancel the event, he said, because they’d accepted a contract and deposit.
Pro-vaccine protesters and members of the local Jewish community watched from the curb.
“Measles is a disaster. I’ve seen kids die of it,” said Susan Schulman, a pediatrician who had been working in Brooklyn since 1976 and said she came to dispel misinformation peddled by the “evil men” at the rally. “I’ve seen the kids on respirators from it, and I’m not talking only 40 years ago. I’m talking about now.” (Mayor de Blasio administration denies anyone dying from measles in New York City. The media would be all over a case like this if it was true. media did not challenge Schulman for proof of her claim.)
Schulman said her biggest worry was that parents who listened to anti-vaccine activists like Bigtree would not only decline MMR vaccinations but other vaccines as well, such as protection against bacterial meningitis.
“If this becomes a movement in my population, I can’t practice medicine,” Schulman said. “I’ll be up all night, every night, with the kids who call in with a fever.”
Ben Rivlin, 30, a caterer from the nearby Midwood neighborhood, stood by the women’s entrance to the rally and held a sign that read: “Vaccination is important! Stop the propaganda and lies.”
“I’m just here to make a little noise,” Rivlin said. “This is not a representation of the Jewish community.”
On Wednesday, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said the number of measles cases NATIONWIDE was 1,001 as of June 5. That’s a disturbing trend because nearly 1 to 3 of every 1,000 children who become infected with measles will die from respiratory and neurologic complications, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (According to the CDC it is 1 in 500,000) The total of 1,001 cases is more than any year since 1992, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. New York City and Rockland County, N.Y., account for 660 of this year’s total. Azar warned of “concerning signs that there are pockets of undervaccination around the country.”
City officials have sought to combat the spread of misinformation. They launched an ad campaign on bus shelters, newspapers and online publications, and met with rabbinical and community leaders to highlight the importance of getting vaccinated and the dangers of measles. The educational materials distributed include about 29,000 pro-vaccination booklets geared to the Orthodox community in English and Yiddish. At the end of April, health officials hosted a telephone town hall to “counter anti-vaccination propaganda,” officials said.
Four women stood with their children on the side of the street opposite the rally. One of them gestured toward the hall and said, “Because of them I had to vaccinate my 6-month-old premature baby.” (Mayor de Blasio ordered hospitals to give MMR shots to babies under 6 months instead of at 1-year schedule. many doctors are not happy about the scheduling at 1 year and certainly not 6 months now)
An unvaccinated woman wearing a pink coat, who lives near Coney Island, said she just deliberately got the measles at age 25. “My nephew came into my house, and I drank from his cup,” she said, to catch the disease “on purpose.” The woman told GifterInGotham she was 18 years old and said she got the measles recently and suffered for a few days and is still not 100% back to normal but also said she feels more energy “like a 5-year-old” who is energetic and running around without a problem.
Washington Post/ GifterInGotham.com