Williamsburg Residents Divided on Vaccines, Despite Mayor’s Health Emergency Declaration

Schoolbus outside the Yeshiva Kehilath Yakov school in Williamsburg, an area currently suffering the country’s largest measles outbreak. photo: Moira Lavelle

By Moira Lavelle and Giulia McDonnell Nieto del Rio

Williamsburg, Brooklyn is in the midst of the country’s largest measles outbreak–but residents are still split on what should be done. Some Orthodox Jewish residents say refusing measles vaccines is a part of their religious belief, but on the streets of Williamsburg there is also strong support for vaccinations and worries that the outbreak might spread.

As NYCityLens reported, Mayor Bill De Blasio declared a public health emergency Tuesday because of the growing measles outbreak in Williamsburg Brooklyn. The city has confirmed 285 cases of the highly contagious disease city wide, with  228 cases confirmed in Williamsburg. Most of these cases were found in unvaccinated or partially unvaccinated people, a majority of whom are children.  

Signed by New York’s health commissioner, the emergency declaration mandates that everyone in those zipcodes receive a measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine, or face a $1,000 penalty.

The outbreak has largely been concentrated in the Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn. The city states that the first case was found in an unvaccinated child who had acquired the disease on a trip to Israel, which is currently suffering an outbreak. The virus spread from there.  

Some in the Orthodox Jewish community oppose vaccines, saying it is a part of their religious belief or they refer to fears that vaccines will cause autism. There are reports of handbooks targeting the Orthodox community, arguing vaccines are not kosher or misrepresenting the danger of measles. Many studies have proven vaccines do not cause autism, and the majority of rabbis say vaccinations are healthy and kosher. None of the measles cases in Brooklyn has been deadly, but the measles virus– usually recognized by a rash of red spots– can lead to pneumonia, encephalitis, and even death.

Avi, 17, a resident of Kensington, Brooklyn, said he and hasn’t seen any cases of measles. His father has a doctor’s office in the area. “Most people do vaccinate their kids, it has nothing to do with religion. Our religion says that you should do it,” he said across the street from the Yeshiva Kehilath Yakov school. Avi, who did not give his last name due to privacy concerns, said he doesn’t believe the outbreak is as serious as Mayor Bill de Blasio makes it out to be.

Since December, the NYC Health Department has ordered yeshivas and day care programs serving the Orthodox Jewish community in Williamsburg to exclude unvaccinated students. The health department has threatened to close these yeshivas if they do not comply.

Avi called Bill de Blasio an anti-semite, and stressed that measles outbreak wasn’t affecting that many people. He said that most things that happen in Jewish communities get blown out of proportion, “If it [the outbreak] was true, there would be signs outside every synagogue telling people not to go in, and there aren’t.”  

However some locals, like Miriam, 66, are worried about how the outbreak may affect their family members. Miriam, who also didn’t want to give her name due to privacy concerns, said everyone should be vaccinated. Her son’s mother-in-law has measles, she said, and is currently in the hospital. “He called me yesterday afternoon to tell me,” she said of her son. “Even the hospital didn’t know what it was at first, but now they figured it out.” Miriam’s daughter doesn’t want to vaccinate her children, she said, because she is worried about the vaccines affecting brain function. But she said that in her work as a mental health care provider, she has lately seen an increase in cases of autism.

Luisa Fuel, 73, has lived in Williamsburg for 42 years since she came from Ecuador, and has a daughter who went to P.S. 16 Leonard Dunkly elementary school.  She’s concerned about the present situation.

“Parents should definitely vaccinate their kids,” Fuel said in Spanish, as she stood on the corner of  Havemeyer and Division Street. “I took my daughter to the doctor to get all the vaccines when she was young, it’s really important.”

But, even to some who support vaccination, the $1,000 fine seems excessive. “I don’t think they should be getting fined, I think another penalty should be given,” said Charlette Hamlin, 36, who is in favor of vaccinations for all. She suggested that maybe parents should be compelled to homeschool their children, emphasizing the risk to the community.

Other residents also proposed alternative solutions to stop the spread of the disease. “Now the schools just send the children home if they’re sick, and that’s the right thing to do,” said Rachel, a Williamsburg resident, who also wished not to give her last name. She said that she believes vaccination is the right choice, though she knows families who said their children developed autism after being vaccinated. “But I don’t see any side effects,” she said. “Nobody has measles in my family, and my children all took the vaccines.”