The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

New York anti-vaccine event attracts pro-vaccine protests amid measles outbreak

U.S. reports measles cases now exceed 1,000

Anti-vaccine activist Del Bigtree speaks with journalists before entering an anti-vaccine event in Brooklyn. (Yana Paskova/For The Washington Post)

NEW YORK — Anti-vaccine activists held their second rally here in several weeks Tuesday night, questioning vaccine safety in a community battling its worst measles outbreak in nearly 30 years, prompting protests by health officials and pro-vaccine parents.

The Brooklyn event, which barred reporters, featured conspiracy theorist Rabbi Hillel Handler and Del Bigtree, head of one of the nation’s most active anti-vaccine groups and producer of a film alleging the government suppressed a link between the measles vaccine and autism (despite studies involving hundreds of thousands of children that have repeatedly disproved such a link).

“They should be allowed to have the measles if they want the measles,” Bigtree told 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.

“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. Barbot 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.”

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., a suburb just north of the city. The anti-vaccine groups rely on aggressive social media, 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 virus can gain a foothold and spread quickly.

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,” he said.

But he also declared his support of parents who refuse to vaccinate their children, citing an event in Austin, Tex.., where he donned a yellow star at one appearance. “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 of Monday, New York City has reported 566 cases since the outbreak began in October, with 42 hospitalizations and 12 admissions to intensive care units. Most of the cases have been in four Brooklyn Zip codes. City officials issued an emergency order in April requiring everyone who lives, works or attends school in those neighborhoods to get vaccinated or face a possible $1,000 fine. It had issued 145 summonses as of Monday.

The anti-vaccine event was not held in one of those Zip codes.

As the sun began to set, bouncers directed attendees, many wearing Orthodox Jewish clothing, to event hall entrances segregated by gender. Some attendees shielded their faces, and a woman taped a garbage bag to the hall’s glass doors to block cameras.

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, perhaps 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 who said she came to dispel misinformation. “I’ve seen the kids on respirators from it, and I’m not talking only 40 years ago. I’m talking about now.”

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 protections 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 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. The total 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 the cases. Azar warned of “concerning signs that there are pockets of undervaccination around the country.”

City officials have sought to combat the spread of misinformation by launching an ad campaign on bus shelters, newspapers and online publications, and meeting with rabbinical and community leaders. The educational materials include about 29,000 pro-vaccination booklets geared to the ultra-Orthodox community in English and Yiddish. At the end of April, health officials also hosted a telephone town hall to “counter anti-vaccination propaganda.”

On the street opposite the meeting, four women stood with their children. “Because of them, I had to vaccinate my 6-month-old premature baby,” one woman complained.

An unvaccinated woman wearing a pink coat, who lives near Coney Island, described how she contracted measles at age 25. “My nephew came into my house, and I drank from his cup,” she said, to catch the disease “on purpose.”

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