A group of five unnamed mothers are suing the city of New York, trying to get it to block a mandatory measles-mumps-rubella vaccination order city officials ordered earlier this month in specific ZIP codes in Brooklyn amid a major measles outbreak.
The city health department said that it would enforce the order by checking vaccination records and tracking down individuals who have been in contact with infected individuals. Those who haven’t received the MMR vaccine or can’t provide evidence of immunity could end up slapped with a $1,000 fine if they refuse to get the shot. Per ABC News, the plaintiffs in the suit to stop that from happening are alleging that “there is insufficient evidence of a measles epidemic or dangerous outbreak” to justify the order (despite at least 285 reported cases in the city this year) and called it “arbitrary and capricious.”
Attorney Robert Krakow, who represents the plaintiffs, told the New York Law Journal one of the families involved felt they were forced to innoculate their two children rather than face the fine.
“That’s compulsion, and that’s equivalent to force,” Krakow said. “The city should not be doing that.”
According to Ars Technica, the lawsuit also cites repeatedly debunked and entirely without merit claims that the MMR vaccine is dangerous. The movement of people who believe such claims, popularly known as antivaxxers, typically parrots scientifically unsupported talking points that vaccines can result in anything from autism to made-up nonsense like “vaccine overload.” Authorities have also warned about “measles parties,” a supposed phenomenon where antivaxxers deliberately expose children to the measles virus so they can build immunity. (Snopes found little evidence this is a real trend, but proponents like Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin exist.)
In reality, the Centers for Disease Control says the MMR vaccine is 97 percent effective with the recommended two doses, and getting the shot usually only poses any risk of serious side effects to the severely immunocompromised or the one or two people per million reported to be allergic to it. It also prevents measles, one of the many conditions the CDC estimated in 2014 would have caused an additional 21 million hospital visits and 732,000 deaths among children born in the past 20 years were it not for the success of the Vaccines for Children program launched in 1994. (Measles is absolutely not something to be taken lightly and can lead to opportunistic infections or severe neurological problems like encephalitis.)
The World Health Organization has declared the antivax movement a global public health threat, and antivaxxers have taken much of the blame for measles’ resurgence—which Ars Technica noted stands at 555 cases in 20 states so far in 2019, on track to surpass 2014's tally of 667.
The lawsuit also alleges the order violates religious freedom. There are indeed exemptions to mandatory vaccination on religious grounds in 47 states, including New York. But the New York Times noted city and state health commissioners usually have vast powers dating to the epidemic-ridden 1800s (late NYC health commissioner Dr. Cyrus Edson said in 1892 he could seize New York City Hall and convert it to a hospital) and that there is “virtually no canonical basis for vaccine avoidance among the world’s major religions.”
In any case, while the outbreak is believed to have originated among New York’s Orthodox Jewish community, the vast majority of rabbis and others there are strongly pro-vaccine—with the Times and BuzzFeed News pointing instead in part to a dedicated fringe group of antivaxxers, backed by national antivax organizations, targeting ultra-Orthodox Jews with fliers and handbooks. (A Politico report cited the rate of religious exemptions in Williamsburg at five percent; this is obviously very bad, but far from the highest non-medical exemption rate in the country.) The Times separately reported that some of the strongest pushback against the antivaxxers has come from Jewish groups working closely with health officials.
“The publicity of us—the rabbinical leadership and lay leadership—telling people that you have to, by Jewish law you have to vaccinate—That is going to have the effect on those last few holdouts to basically fall in line,” United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg head David Niederman told Politico.
“This outbreak is being fueled by a small group of anti-vaxxers in these neighborhoods,” Health Department and Health Commissioner Dr. Oxiris Barbot wrote in a statement last week. “They have been spreading dangerous misinformation based on fake science.”
As Ars Technica noted, antivaxxers have filed lawsuits in response to other emergency actions. After a separate group of parents in New York’s Rockland County, which is facing a nearly 200-strong measles outbreak, successfully had courts halt a ban on unvaccinated children in public spaces, health officials simply issued another set of orders barring anyone sick with or exposed to measles from indoor and outdoor places of public assembly.
In a statement to the Law Journal, city Law Department spokesman Nick Paolucci said, “The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the right of states and localities to mandate vaccines to stop outbreaks. We are in the midst of an epidemic that was preventable. Our attempts at education and persuasion have failed to stop the spread of measles. We had to take this additional action to fulfill our obligation to ensure that individuals do not continue to put the health of others at risk.”
Correction: Measles is just one of the illnesses included in the 732,000 death, 21 million hospitalizations figure released by the CDC. We regret the error.