An orthodox Jewish man walks through the parking lot of...

An orthodox Jewish man walks through the parking lot of a supermarket on March 26, 2019 in Spring Valley. Credit: AP/Julie Jacobson

A state of emergency has been declared in Rockland County in an effort to snuff out a widening measles outbreak that has affected 153 people — predominantly children — in recent months.

Unvaccinated youngsters under age 18 are being barred from public places — schools, restaurants, public transportation, shopping centers and houses of worship — for the next 30 days as health authorities attempt to rein in one of the largest measles outbreaks statewide since the respiratory illness was eradicated in 2000.

The outbreak has coincided with another in Brooklyn and Queens, where nearly 200 cases have been counted by public health authorities in recent months.

Cases in Rockland, which sits just West of Westchester, and New York City have been concentrated in Orthodox Jewish communities where the mumps-measles-rubella — MMR — vaccine has been shunned by parents who don't want their children vaccinated. The two-dose shot is an effective preventive, and parents are being urged to get their children vaccinated, Rockland officials said Tuesday.

“I am an Orthodox rabbi, and there is absolutely no religious authority that forbids one from getting vaccinated,” said Dr. Aaron Glatt, chairman of medicine at South Nassau Communities Hospital in Oceanside, and a specialist in infectious diseases.

“Unfortunately, there is a segment of the population that has fallen under the influence of the anti-vaxxers,” Glatt said of people who espouse anti-vaccine beliefs. “You see this among Jewish and non-Jewish parents. There is a strong contingent of anti-vaxxers who have ulterior motives, but most are decent parents who are just misinformed.”

Rockland’s sweeping state-of-emergency was defined Tuesday by public health officials as the first of its kind in the United States. The ban on unvaccinated children in public places starts at midnight Wednesday.

Unvaccinated children in New York City’s outbreak have been banned from prekindergarten and schools for older children in efforts to get a handle on the outbreak there. Rockland’s containment effort, however, is more extensive and has roots in other attempts to control the outbreak.

Earlier this month a federal judge barred 50 students from attending a Rockland school because they were unvaccinated. Health officials believe the outbreak was ignited in September by an international traveler who arrived in the area with measles. The situation worsened when six additional international travelers with measles arrived in Rockland, further spreading measles to vulnerable children.

Glatt said Long Island is protected by “herd immunity,” the public health safety net that guards communities when a sufficient percentage of the population is vaccinated. Any slippage in vaccination adherence can spark infections if someone with measles arrives in the area, he said.   

Measles is a highly infectious respiratory illness, marked by an explosive rash, and ranks as one of the most contagious viral illnesses. It is more easily transmitted than the flu because it takes far fewer viral particles to cause infection. The disease is transmitted through coughing, sneezing and touching contaminated objects.

The illness is far from benign, and during its transmission heyday — before a vaccine was developed in 1963 — measles killed about 500 people in the United States annually and led to serious side effects, such as permanent deafness and brain damage.

Dr. Arthur Caplan, founding director of the division of medical ethics at NYU Langone in Manhattan, blamed rampant and easily accessible misinformation for parents’ vaccine hesitancy.

“Social media is the accelerant for the anti-vaccination fire,” said Caplan, who also heads a project on vaccine ethics and policy at NYU Langone. He said ill-informed celebrities have helped stoke vaccine hesitancy, which has led to record numbers of parents nationwide seeking exemptions from school vaccination requirements.

Even as New York copes with the longest-running measles epidemic since eradication, major outbreaks have swept through other parts of the country, particularly Washington State and Arizona, Caplan said.

Deadly outbreaks abroad have left hundreds of children dead in Europe, the Philippines and Madagascar, according to data from the World Health Organization.

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