Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
June 2, 2020


New York has been struggling to contain a massive measles outbreak.

The two current New York measles outbreaks, which began in late 2018 among primarily Orthodox Jewish communities, have seen limited containment in the past few months.

Measles is a viral infection; it is mainly transmitted by respiratory droplets in coughs and sneezes. Even after a droplet lands on a surface, it remain infectious for several hours. People can get infected by rubbing their eyes or putting their hand in their mouth after touching the infected surface.

The infection is most dangerous for small children. Although it can easily be prevented with a vaccine, more than 100,000 are still killed by the disease yearly. 

According to Mayo Clinic, the average number of measles cases in the U.S. has been growing: it was about 60 from 2000 to 2010, but has increased to 205 in following years. 

The two outbreaks in New York have taken place in Brooklyn and Rockland County.  

According to the New York City government, there have been 214 confirmed cases of measles in Brooklyn and Queens alone as of March 27. As of March 29, there are 157 confirmed reported cases in Rockland County according to its public health officials. 

According to some sources, one of the reasons why public health authorities have not been able to contain the spread of disease is that many community members have refused to work with state and local health authorities. 

In an interview with CNN, John Lyon, director of strategic communications for the Office of County Executive in Rockland County, New York, gave an example of how an infected person in Rockland county stopped cooperating with the officials.

“[They] notified us that they were at a Target in Spring Valley, New York,” Lyon said. “But then they stopped returning our phone calls, wouldn’t pick up the phone, wouldn’t help us narrow down the time they were there.”

Because of incidents like these, public health officials took an unusual step. 

Recently, they banned unvaccinated people under the age of 18 from going out in public places in Rockland County. Anyone who is found to violate this law can potentially be taken to the district attorney to face legal action.

Public health officials in New York City also chose a similar course of action. In December 2018, New York City’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene issued an order for specific areas in New York that prevented unvaccinated children from attending school until they were vaccinated or until the measles outbreak was over. 

Many of the City’s schools have been violating the order, and the Department plans on taking further steps if this continues. A commissioner’s order may be put into play, which would impose a $2,000 fine on the principal of the offending school for each unvaccinated child that attends school each day. 

Public health officials believe that this outbreak is driven by parents’ fears to vaccinate their children, which may have been fueled by a pamphlet that has been distributed in New York and New Jersey Jewish communities that warned of the dangers of vaccines. 

The pamphlet specifically targeted these Jewish communities; it is partially written in Hebrew and contains excerpts from the Torah.

Dr. Sean O’Leary, a pediatric infectious disease specialist of the University of Colorado School of Medicine, has denounced this pamphlet for its misinformation on vaccines. 

While O’Leary acknowledges the notion that there is no way to be certain whether there is a strong causal relationship between the distribution of the pamphlet and the measles outbreaks, he strongly believes that fear of vaccination is the main driving force of these outbreaks.

“Myths about vaccine dangers are very hard to get out of people’s minds, because the more you say it’s a myth – for example, vaccines don’t cause autism – the more you risk reinforcing the myth by associating the two even though it’s completely false,” O’Leary said in an interview with CNN.

“It’s pretty easy to plant fear into people’s minds,” he continued. “But it’s much harder to get that fear out of their minds.”

O’Leary has created a group called the Vaccine Task Force. He plans on publishing a rebuttal pamphlet to refute the information in the previous pamphlet in the hopes that it will prevent future outbreaks in these Jewish communities. 

The main task at the moment, however, is figuring out a way to contain the outbreak.

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