Mayor Bill de Blasio declared a public health emergency in New York City on Tuesday due to a measles outbreak that includes 285 cases. Alarmingly, that brings the statewide total to more than 400. New York is one of 19 states dealing with measles outbreaks.
But this scare isn’t only about ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities in Brooklyn or Rockland counties, where cases are concentrated.
A Newsday editorial board examination of state Health Department data from the 2017-18 school year found that more than 70 Long Island schools — both private and public — have so many unvaccinated students that they fall below the minimum 96 percent vaccination rate recommended by the state. (See our database here.)
There are private schools from Garden City to Riverhead with vaccination rates that hover at 50 to 60 percent. There’s one tiny religious school that educates fewer than two dozen students, none of whom are immunized. And there are larger nonreligious schools where more than a third of students claimed a religious exemption, allowing them to remain unvaccinated.
There is no debate here. This is a public health crisis, the welfare of children and vulnerable adults is at stake and there’s a way to stop it: New Yorkers must be immunized.
All it takes is one case for measles to spread rapidly through communities with lower vaccination rates. Unvaccinated kids, even if they’re in private schools, can expose others anywhere they go, from Little League to the supermarket.
To achieve what’s known as “herd immunity,” and best protect the entire population, the state Health Department says each school should reach a 96 percent vaccination rate. The 70 schools on Long Island that fall below that rate are mostly private, but also include schools in 17 public districts, including Huntington, Hauppauge, Great Neck and Cold Spring Harbor.
Among public schools with lower vaccination rates are those in districts including Wyandanch, Roosevelt and Hempstead, where immigration plays a huge role. In some cases, schoolchildren lack paperwork to prove they’re immunized; in others, they got only one shot instead of two, or none at all. A joint effort by the schools, local health clinics, and state and county health departments is necessary to inform parents, encourage immunization, and provide more vaccination opportunities in and near schools.
Still, New York State makes it too easy to avoid immunizing young children. The state’s so-called religious exemption is often used not for religious reasons, but because parents believe misinformation or don’t trust government officials. In part, these are reasons for the state’s outbreak. Anonymous groups are circulating pamphlets in Orthodox Jewish communities that scare parents, even taking Jewish law out of context to try to back their false claims.
Beyond that, state lawmakers must pass legislation that would end all exemptions except for a medical one. State health officials must continue to help school districts with challenges rooted in immigration.
And Long Island should learn from the ongoing outbreak.
Don’t assume your school or your community is immune. There is only one real course of action: Vaccinate. — The editorial board