Biological warfare: Williamsburg residents sue city for right to not vaccinate

Biological warfare: Williamsburg residents sue city for right to not vaccinate
Five Williamsburg residents are suing NYC Health Commissioner Dr. Oxiris Barbot, right, to block her emergency health declaration fining unvaccinated residents of the Orthodox Jewish enclave.
Photo by Paul Martinka

Five Williamsburg residents are fighting for the right to not vaccinate themselves and their children amid a growing measles outbreak in Brooklyn, filing suit against the Department of Health in an effort to quash an emergency health declaration that slaps unvaccinated locals with stiff fines.

The plaintiffs, who filed a complaint in Brooklyn Supreme Court on Monday, argued that the roughly 300 known cases of the potentially fatal illness do not justify the city’s decision to override their religious objections to the MMR vaccine, according to their lawyer.

“We don’t think the so-called ‘outbreak’ has reached a level that requires the extreme response of forcing vaccinations,” said Robert Krakow, a Manhattan attorney specializing in vaccine injury lawsuits.

Mayor Bill de Blasio and city Health Commissioner Dr. Oxiris Barbot announced on April 9 that unvaccinated residents of four Williamsburg zip codes — where some 250 of the total 285 measles cases had been identified — would be subject to fines of up to $1,000 in response to the outbreak, which has exclusively affected members of the borough’s Orthodox Jewish communities.

And while Krakow’s clients represent a mix of Jewish and Gentile Williamsburg residents, they all object to vaccination on religious grounds and claim the city’s latest move to stem the virus’ spread constitutes a gross overreaction, and that less drastic measures, such as quarantining infected individuals, should have been explored first.

“We don’t think the city should be in the business of forcing people to vaccinate,” said Krakow. “Quarantine can be imposed for the people with active infections.”

The measles virus can be contagious for weeks before symptoms show, and the attorney said he was not aware that several Williamsburg yeshiva’s had been cited by the city for admitting unvaccinated students amid an ongoing exclusion order, including one school where more than 20 students were infected, according to the Health Department.

The plaintiffs further allege that measles can be actually be contracted and spread by the inoculation, and that vaccinating “[enhances] the risk of harm to the public” through a process referred to as viral shedding.

“That’s something that happens, and we don’t know a lot about it,” Krakow said.

Viral shedding refers to the process by which viruses spread, but is a term used by members of the anti-vaccination movement to propagate the myth that vaccines cause outbreaks, according to a Science-Based Medicine report.

Measles is a highly infectious, air-born disease that reaped an annual national death toll of between 400 to 500 people before the MMR vaccine program kicked off in 1963, according to the Center for Disease Control.

Barbot did not exceed her authority by issuing the city declaration mandating vaccines, which came after attempts to educate the community and exclude unvaccinated kids from Kings County yeshiva’s failed to stop the spread of the disease, according to a spokesman for the city’s Law Department.

“The city’s order is within the Health Commissioner’s authority to address the very serious danger presented by this measles outbreak,” said Nick Paolucci. “The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the right of states and localities to mandate vaccines to stop outbreaks.”

Reach reporter Colin Mixson at cmixson@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260-4505.

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