The state is investigating whether Julie DeVuono, arriving at Suffolk County...

The state is investigating whether Julie DeVuono, arriving at Suffolk County Court in April in connection to a fake COVID-19 vaccine card scam, falsified other immunization records. Credit: James Carbone

Until a measles vaccine became available in 1963, 400 to 500 people a year nationwide died of the disease and nearly 50,000 were hospitalized.

The danger of measles and other diseases for which childhood vaccinations are required is why questions raised about the accuracy of an Amityville pediatric practice’s immunization records are so serious, experts said.

“If you have a school, or a classroom, where a lot of folks didn't vaccinate their kids, obviously it can spread from the unvaccinated kid to the other unvaccinated kids,” said Arthur Caplan, a professor of bioethics at New York University and an expert on vaccine policy. “It’s much more likely you’re going to get an outbreak.”

Amityville nurse practitioner Julie DeVuono, owner of Wild Child Pediatric Healthcare, pleaded guilty to two felonies in September in connection with falsely stating that she administered COVID-19 vaccinations, when she did not. Her attorney, Jason Russo, said she sold thousands of fake vaccination cards, and prosecutors alleged she made $1.5 million in profits, charging up to $350 per fake shot for adults, and up to $220 for children.

What to know

  • Accurate vaccination records are critical because diseases like the measles can spread quickly if they aren’t contained, experts say, pointing to outbreaks in 2018 and 2019 in Brooklyn and Rockland County.
  • The Nassau and Suffolk health departments recommended that parents of kids with records from an Amityville pediatric practice convicted of vaccine-card fraud obtain proof of vaccination elsewhere.
  • Measles, diphtheria and other diseases killed thousands of U.S. children a year until vaccines were developed against them, and cases are rare today because of widespread vaccination, experts say.
Waiting for proof of vaccination fraud or litigation could take...

Waiting for proof of vaccination fraud or litigation could take years, said Arthur Caplan, professor of bioethics at New York University. Credit: NYU Langone Health

Health departments recommend additional proof

The Nassau and Suffolk health departments have expressed concern that, in addition to falsifying COVID-19 vaccine cards, Wild Child could have issued fake childhood immunization records for diseases including the measles, mumps and tetanus.

In October, they sent letters to all Long Island school districts recommending that they require parents of children with Wild Child records to provide proof of immunization.

It’s unclear how many districts, if any, are following the advisories.

Russo said DeVuono did not issue fake records for state-mandated childhood vaccines, and she was not criminally charged with providing falsified non-COVID vaccines to children. But the state Department of Health said this month it is investigating whether DeVuono’s fraud extended to those vaccines. It has not released evidence against DeVuono, citing the open investigation.

Police seized $900,000 in cash in connection with the Wild...

Police seized $900,000 in cash in connection with the Wild Child COVID-19 vaccination card scheme. Credit: SCDA

Some school districts initially followed health department recommendations to require that Wild Child patients obtain further proof of vaccination, from a blood test and, in the case of vaccines not easily detected through blood tests, from vaccination from a different provider.

Parents in some districts challenged those mandates, in some cases turning to attorneys who warned districts of legal action if they didn’t back down. The Miller Place, Rocky Point and Smithtown school districts suspended their mandates pending findings from the state probe.

Caplan said the health departments were right to recommend blood tests and vaccinations now, rather than waiting for results of the state investigation.

“In an era where we’ve seen outbreaks [of diseases like the measles], you’ve got to be cautious,” he said. “If you’re going to wait for proof and litigate this in the courts, you could have a window of years” of potential outbreaks.

But attorney James Mermigis, who represents several parents who challenged district mandates, said forcing parents to prove their children are vaccinated, when there is not evidence Wild Child fabricated their kids’ records, violates their civil rights.

Deadly viruses 'still around'

Measles is so contagious that, pre-vaccine, almost every child in the country became infected with the virus by age 15, according to the American Public Health Association. Other diseases infected fewer children but killed a higher percentage, with diphtheria causing more than 15,000 deaths in 1921, before vaccinations against that illness became common, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says.

“Vaccines are considered one of the greatest accomplishments of public health in the 20th century, the 21st as well,” said Richard Carpiano, a professor of public policy at the University of California, Riverside, and an expert on vaccine uptake. “There's often this argument in anti-vaccine circles that, 'We don't see these kinds of diseases anymore. Why do we have to vaccinate against them?’ Well, we don’t see them anymore because we’re vaccinating against them.”

Of the few U.S. cases of diseases like the measles and hepatitis B, many originate abroad, in countries where vaccination is less common.

“These viruses are still around,” said Dr. Leonard Krilov, an infectious disease specialist and chairman of pediatrics at NYU Langone Hospital-Long Island in Mineola. “So easing up on vaccines can allow a resurgence.”

An unvaccinated child returning home from Israel in 2018 began an outbreak of 648 measles cases in Brooklyn, according to a 2020 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine. About 8% of those infected were hospitalized.

A vaccination rate of 92% to 95% typically prevents outbreaks, Krilov said.

Officially, between 97% and 98% of New York State kindergartners were immunized in the 2022-23 school year, depending on the vaccine, according to the CDC. Another 2.3% had provisional enrollment; 0.1% received a medical exemption.

Amount of vaccine record fraud unknown

Yet the real numbers could be different, Caplan said: “In private schools, compliance is sometimes run by people who don’t support vaccination, and the enforcement is lax.”

State health department spokeswoman Erin Clary said the department conducts random and targeted audits of schools' vaccine records each year.

Caplan said the extent of vaccine-record fraud is unknown.

Russo said Wild Child administered 500 to 1,000 vaccinations a year. The state health department declined to say whether it knows the number of children with Wild Child vaccination records, because, Clary said, the investigation is ongoing.

DeVuono has been a licensed nurse practitioner since 2002, state records show, although as part of a plea deal, she agreed to surrender her license. Kids-on-Call Pediatric Nurse Practitioner, P.C., the corporate parent of Wild Child, was formed in 2007, records show.

Mermigis said his clients' children received their childhood immunizations and shouldn't be required to get them again. Titer tests, which are blood tests that measure antibodies created by vaccines, are not always reliable, he said.

“You take five kids, they're all vaccinated, and three of them, the titers may show that they have no immunity, and two of them might draw titers,” he said.

Mermigis added, “Say they're forced to get a vaccine over again. That could damage children to get these vaccines a second time.”

Dr. Sharon Nachman, chief of pediatric infectious diseases at Stony Brook Medicine, said a repeat dose of a vaccine does not harm children. In a small percentage of cases, vaccines either don’t create antibodies or not enough antibodies to be detected. For the measles vaccine, for example, about 15% to 20% of titer tests may be negative after the first dose, dropping to 5% after the second, she said.

Yet even if a child received a vaccine, if a test is negative, it’s advisable to get another vaccination, in case the first one did not create antibodies, or not enough, she said. 

“We don’t take the chance and say, ‘Oh, you're probably protected,’ ” she said. “We say, giving a second dose of a live vaccine is perfectly safe, because if you didn't make a [immune] response, you will, and if you made a response, all I'm doing is boosting it.”

Rita Palma, of Blue Point, founded My Kids, My Choice, an advocacy group that instructs people on how to apply for vaccine religious exemptions, which were barred in 2019 for K-12 schoolchildren but are still available for postsecondary students. She said the government shouldn’t interfere in parents' medical choices for their children.

“It should be solely the decision of the parent,” Palma said.

But Donna Hallas, director of the pediatric nurse practitioner program at the NYU Rory Meyers College of Nursing, said parents can be influenced by anti-vaccine misinformation and don’t have the medical knowledge to make a decision that could endanger other children or teachers. That includes people on chemotherapy who cannot get vaccinated, she said.

“It’s about protecting the public, not just one person,” she said.

Donna Hallas, clinical professor and director of the pediatric nurse...

Donna Hallas, clinical professor and director of the pediatric nurse practitioner program at the NYU Rory Meyers College of Nursing. Credit: NYU Rory Meyers College of Nursing

Vaccine support dropping

The politicization of the COVID-19 vaccine increased vaccine hesitancy, although few people are truly anti-vaccine, Carpiano said.

“Anything public health got bundled up with the idea of big government impinging on personal freedoms,” he said.

The percentage of adults who say healthy children should be required to obtain the vaccine against measles, mumps and rubella to attend school fell from 82% in October 2019 to 71% in December 2022, with 28% stating that parents should be able to decide, even if it creates health risks for others, according to polls from the San Francisco-based health policy nonprofit KFF.

Vaccines are safe, with serious side effects like severe allergic reactions rare, the CDC says. “The disease-prevention benefits of getting vaccines are much greater than the possible side effects for almost all children,” the agency states.

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