Hundreds of ultra-Orthodox Jews attended an anti-vaccine event in New York Monday night during which speakers suggested that a recent outbreak of measles in the community was the result of deliberate infection by authorities.
The “vaccine symposium” held in Rockland County, Monsey, was organized by a local Jewish group calling itself the United Jewish Community Council, The New York Times reported Tuesday.
Among those who addressed the participants was Andrew Wakefield, a British former doctor who lost his license after he published a fraudulent 1998 paper in The Lancet claiming a link between the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism. Wakefield’s paper is seen as having a major influence in spreading anti-vaccination attitudes.
Also speaking was Greg Mitchell, a lobbyist for the Church of Scientology, and local rabbi Hillel Handler who described New York Mayor Bill de Blasio as a “sneaky fellow” and told the crowd that Jews had been singled out for recent compulsory vaccination and school closures which were imposed due to the spread of measles.
“We Hasidim have been chosen as the target,” said Handler, referring to sectarian parts of the ultra-Orthodox community. “The campaign against us has been successful.”
A “vaccine symposium” in Rockland County was denounced by health authorities & some ultra-Orthodox rabbis, who said the speakers spreading dangerous propaganda.https://t.co/2jrWj7k77L pic.twitter.com/FgSvxsfdiB
— Microbes&Infection (@MicrobesInfect) May 15, 2019
Another presenter was holistic pediatrician Lawrence Palevsky who claimed Jews were deliberately being given bad vaccines and also asserted that failed vaccines are producing a new strain of the measles, the Times reported.
“Is it possible that the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine that is somehow being given in this lot to communities in Williamsburg and Lakewood and Monsey, maybe in Borough Park, is it possible that these lots are bad?” Palevsky asked.
“It’s fascinating because we’re told how contagious the disease is, but somehow it’s centered in the Jewish community,” he said.
Wakefield, who insisted he is innocent of any malpractice, spoke to the event via a Skype video call, accusing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as health authorities of misleading the public, the report said.
Following the event, Handler spoke to the New York Times by phone saying, “I don’t mind if someone takes a vaccine. It’s not my business. What am I, a fascist? Am I going to bring down the law?”
Rockland County Executive Ed Day issued a joint statement along with Rabbi Chaim Schabes, a prominent figure in the local ultra-Orthodox community, saying “Tonight’s event and the misinformation being shared at it runs counter to every statement from the medical experts and elected officials of our county.”
“This type of propaganda endangers the health and safety of children within our community and around the world, and must be denounced in the strongest language possible,” the statement said.
During the event an SUV in the parking outside broadcast a message in Yiddish condemning anti-vaccination policies, the Daily Beast reported.
De Blasio declared a health emergency last month and ordered unvaccinated people living or working in four ZIP codes in the largely ultra-Orthodox Williamsburg neighborhood to get the vaccine or be required to pay fines of up to $1,000.
As of the end of April, 423 cases of measles have been confirmed in New York since the beginning of the outbreak in October, with 348 of the cases in Williamsburg, according to the Yeshiva World News.
The CDC pinned the resurgence on the unvaccinated and those who brought back measles from other countries. The outbreaks in Orthodox Jewish communities were associated with travelers who carried the disease back from Israel and Ukraine, according to the CDC.
Despite institutional pressure, a strain of opposition to vaccines has persisted in ultra-Orthodox communities based on false claims that vaccines are ineffective at best and harmful at worst. Large families, close-knit communities and the complexity of timing immunizations for a family’s many young children also have contributed to the outbreak.
The majority of Orthodox Jewish children are vaccinated, according to statistics issued by the New York state and New York City health departments. There is no religious reason not to be vaccinated. Prominent rabbis in New York have called on their followers to vaccinate their children.
Last week the ultra-Orthodox umbrella group Agudath Israel of America announced it was organizing free vaccines in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods of New York City to counter the spread of measles.