Anti-vaccine activists held their second rally in several weeks Tuesday night, questioning vaccine safety in a community battling its most widespread measles outbreak in nearly 30 years, amid protests by health officials and pro-vaccine parents.
The 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. Studies involving hundreds of thousands of children 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 she 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,” 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 criticized 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. 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 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 be 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 that 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.”
But he also declared his support of parents who refuse to vaccinate their children, citing an event in Austin, Texas, where he gave a speech in which he displayed a yellow star. “I pinned it to my jacket, and I said I stand with the Orthodox Jewish community in Rockland County.”
He also said “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, many wearing Orthodox Jewish clothing, to 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 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, about 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 has worked 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.”
Schulman said her biggest worry was that parents who listened to anti-vaccine activists like Bigtree would decline MMR vaccinations and others, 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, U.S. 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 in 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 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 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.”
An unvaccinated woman 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.”