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Measles outbreak: Brooklyn judge dismisses anti-vaxxer lawsuit against the city

'Irrational skepticism can be harmful' doctor says

April 19, 2019 Scott Enman
The number of confirmed measles cases rose this week to 359. Photo courtesy of CDC
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A Brooklyn judge dismissed a lawsuit filed by a group of anti-vaxxers against the city on Thursday as the number of confirmed measles cases rose to 359.

“A fireman need not obtain the informed consent of the owner before extinguishing a house fire,” Hon. Lawrence Knipel of Kings County Supreme Court wrote in his ruling. “Vaccination is known to extinguish the fire of contagion. It is worthwhile to note that in enacting.”

On April 9, New York City declared a public health emergency, ordering mandatory measles-mumps-rubella vaccinations for residents in parts of Williamsburg as the number of confirmed cases at that time had risen to 285 since Sept. 30.

Since the emergency was announced, 74 additional people have contracted the disease. The outbreak is primarily affecting the Orthodox Jewish community.

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The litigation, filed on behalf of the parents of five unvaccinated children, asked Knipel to vacate the mandate, calling it “capricious, contrary to law” and exceeding “lawful authority.”

Knipel, however, did not agree, saying the health implications of this epidemic outweigh the plaintiffs’ claims.

“The unvarnished truth is that these diagnoses represent the most significant spike in incidences of measles in the United States in many years and that the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn is at its epicenter. It has already begun to spread to remote locations,” Knipel wrote, referring to one individual from Williamsburg who recently traveled to Michigan and spread the disease to 39 more people.

Robert Krakow, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Patricia Finn of Children’s Health Defense filed the lawsuit against the New York City Department of Health and Human Hygiene and provided an affidavit from Dr. Jane Orient, who wrote, “the current measles outbreak is not a clear and present danger.”

Knipel, however, said Orient’s claim provided no evidence and the “unsupported, bald faced opinion” would not “be credited by this court.”

“While we are disappointed that the court ruled that the current situation allows the government to impose excessive fines that will unnecessarily override our clients’ rights to choose not to vaccinate, we were successful in challenging the unacceptable criminal penalties that were previously imposed by the City of New York,” Krakow told the Brooklyn Eagle.

“We are reviewing the decision and deciding our next steps in our efforts to protect our clients’ civil and religious liberties. We understand the need to protect the public, and we will continue our efforts to challenge unreasonable measures and make certain that public health authorities choose methods that are appropriate to the circumstances.”

The Children’s Health Defense website has produced literature discussing the “dangers” of vaccinations, claiming there are high levels of mercury and a risk of autism.

But Dr. Alan Kadish, a physician and president of the Touro College & University System, the largest institution of higher education under Jewish auspices in the U.S., says the website’s claims are absolutely false.

“Skepticism is important for any scientist or anyone dealing with scientists, but irrational skepticism can be harmful,” Kadish told the Eagle. “And what’s going on here is irrational skepticism.”

Anti-vaxxers have also tried to claim that Judaism does not allow one to receive vaccinations, but Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis, said that the health consequences far outweigh any religious implications.

“I think whenever we have religious law and civil law possibly conflicting with one another, we always ask ‘what is a compelling reason here to protect that religious freedom?’” Potasnik told the Eagle. “When there are competing issues, we always look at the greater good,” he added. “The greater good here is the health of the person.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio said individuals and parents who ignored the mandate would be fined up to $1,000 and questioned by “disease detectives.” The Health Department issued three of those fines on Thursday.

The city also announced that it had shut down four schools located at 68-84 Harrison Ave., 241 Keap St., 590 Bedford Ave. and 720 Wythe Ave. due to the outbreak.

The United Talmudical Academy in Williamsburg reopened on Thursday under Health Department monitoring after it was briefly closed for refusing to hand over records showing whether it was excluding staff and students with measles.

Follow reporter Scott Enman on Twitter.

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