Measles cases hit 1,001 as anti-vaxxers hold another rally of disinformation

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Prominent anti-vaccine advocates and conspiracy theorists held another rally of misinformation in New York Tuesday as the national tally of measles cases ticked passed 1,000.

The rally was held at an event hall in Brooklyn, an area hard hit by a measles outbreak that began last September. There have been 566 confirmed cases in New York City since then, mostly in unvaccinated children in the Orthodox Jewish community.

The rally- the second of its kind in New York in recent weeks -is part of a pattern of anti-vaccine groups targeting vulnerable communities that are grappling with outbreaks. Like the previous rally, Tuesday’s event featured Rabbi Hillel Handler and Del Bigtree, both prominent anti-vaccine provocateurs known for fear mongering and spreading myths about lifesaving immunizations.

Members of the press were barred from the event, but a reporter with VosIzNeias (VIN News)-which describes itself as covering “news for the Orthodox Jewish community in NY, and around the world”-was able to get in. The reporter estimated that around 200 people were in attendance (though reporters with The Washington Post, who were outside the event, reported around 100).

VIN’s coverage went on to describe the content of the anti-vaccine rally, which included standard anti-vaccine conspiracy theories and the extensively debunked and false claim that vaccines cause autism. “In Handler’s version of reality, doctors, rabbis, and politicians are all hoodwinked by a massive conspiracy orchestrated by drug companies and the Centers for Disease Control [and Prevention] to make money off of vaccines,” the VIN coverage notes.

In summarizing Bigtree’s presentation, the VIN reporter wrote:

Over the course of about 12 minutes, Bigtree linked vaccines to the Holocaust and then to child sacrifice. He compared them to Nazi experimentation on unwilling Jewish medical subjects, then to the intentional ritual murder of children, in an effort to debunk the scientific consensus that a critical mass of vaccinated people, or herd immunity, means that even those who cannot be vaccinated for genuine medical reasons will have some protection from getting sick.

“It’s hard to imagine what it would be that would let you accept killing an innocent child,” he said. “What if I presented to you that this would make it worth it? This is the argument, right? Herd immunity. Herd immunity is the reason we’re allowed to kill some children.”

The crowd applauded.

Health officials in New York were livid over the event. New York City Health Commissioner Oxiris Barbot said in a tweet that holding such an event during an outbreak is “beyond irresponsible, it is downright dangerous.”

To hold an anti-vaccination rally in the middle of an outbreak is beyond irresponsible, it is downright dangerous. pic.twitter.com/TCL2aijfHF

– Commissioner Oxiris Barbot (@NYCHealthCommr) June 4, 2019

In a blog post published Wednesday, Dr. Barbot laid into anti-vaxxers further, blaming them from “manipulating public opinion in lieu of the facts” and “targeting certain communities in Brooklyn with false claims.”

“They are adept at using strategies-from anonymous robocalls to transmitting false information through the Web-with impunity because they have no one to hold them accountable for misinformation,” she went on. “These shadow tactics show a callous disregard for every person who is unable to get immunized, such as newborn infants, people who are pregnant, and those who are immune-compromised. As a pediatrician and public health leader, I am beyond frustrated that such misinformation is causing fear and hundreds of innocent children to suffer.”

Meanwhile on Wednesday, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar announced that the nationwide measles count for 2019 had hit 1,001. That’s the highest number of cases since 1992, which saw around 2,200 cases.

The high case count and large ongoing outbreaks in the country-including those in New York-put the country at risk of losing its measles elimination status. In 2000-when there were just 86 imported measles cases nationwide-officials declared that measles was eliminated from the States, meaning there was an absence of continuous spread for a year. But that landmark public health achievement is now in jeopardy as the disease continues to circulate in communities with low vaccination rates.

“The 1,000th case of a preventable disease like measles is a troubling reminder of how important that work is to the public health of the nation,” Secretary Azar said in a statement, adding that measles is an “incredibly contagious and dangerous disease.”

“We cannot say this enough: vaccines are a safe and highly effective public health tool that can prevent this disease and end the current outbreak,” he added.