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Amid measles outbreak, NYC health officials strive to promote vaccination, dispel myths

The U.S. is battling one of the largest outbreaks of measles in decades, with 465 cases confirmed nationwide and 78 new cases in the last week alone. New York City alone has 285 confirmed cases since last fall. Dr. Oxiris Barbot, commissioner of its Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, talks to Judy Woodruff about efforts to work with the community to promote vaccination and dispel myth.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The United States is battling one of its largest measles outbreaks in decades, with 465 cases confirmed nationwide and 78 new cases in the last week alone.

    New York City has become a particular hot spot, with 285 confirmed cases since last fall. Twenty-one of those have been hospitalized, five of them in intensive care.

    The outbreak there has centered in Ultra Orthodox Jewish communities in Brooklyn, where opposition to receiving vaccinations runs high.

    Yesterday, New York City's Mayor Bill de Blasio declared a public health emergency, requiring anyone who has not be vaccinated to receive one or face possible fines.

    For more on what the city is facing, I am joined by Dr. Oxiris Barbot, commissioner of New York City's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

    Dr. Barbot, thank you very much for talking with us.

    First of all, bring us up to date on the situation there in New York.

  • Dr. Oxiris Barbot:

    So, as you mentioned, we currently have 285 individuals who have contracted the illness, after having it declared eradicated in 2000.

    It's the largest outbreak that we have had since 1991. And with this public health emergency, we want New Yorkers, especially those in Brooklyn, Williamsburg, to take seriously the fact that measles has significant consequences, and it's preventable.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So an emergency order was necessary, in your view?

  • Dr. Oxiris Barbot:

    Yes.

    You know, and we didn't take this decision lightly. We started working with the communities in terms of excluding children who were exposed to measles from schools. And that didn't do the trick. We worked with schools in terms of issuing notices of violations.

    And even, and most importantly, we worked with the community to dispel any myths and undo any negative or wrong information they had because they'd gotten it from anti-vaccine communities.

    And so we did see that, since the beginning of the outbreak, we have been able to get over 8,000 New Yorkers in that community and one other that have high numbers vaccinated. And so we see that as positive proof that our efforts are working.

    But the reality is that people are still getting the measles, and there's more that we need to do.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What about since you issued this order yesterday? Are people complying now?

  • Dr. Oxiris Barbot:

    You know, I think it's too early to tell.

    And we have certainly had a lot of inquiries about how we're going to enforce it, what people should do. And, you know, the most important thing that we want people to know is that we will work with any and all individuals who have concerns, questions about the vaccine's safety to reassure them that the vaccine is safe.

    We want to make it easy for people to be vaccinated within three days of being exposed, because we don't want it to come to having to issue violations. We want New Yorkers, especially those in Williamsburg, to get vaccinated and feel good about getting their children vaccinated.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, that's what I wanted to ask you, because I know, through that community, there runs a strong belief against vaccinations.

    So how are you persuading them that they're safe?

  • Dr. Oxiris Barbot:

    We have been working with community-based organizations, health care providers in that community, and, most importantly, faith-based leaders.

    And, in addition, we have taken out several ads in Yiddish newspapers. We have done robo-calls to over 30,000 households. We have done direct mailings in Yiddish to these households.

    And we have made offers of meeting with any and all groups to dispel any myths about the safety of the vaccine and to reassure them that we want to make it easy to get their children vaccinated, because the reality is, measles is so incredibly contagious, that we want to maximize the number of people vaccinated and feeling good about it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Are you prepared — I mean, first of all, how are you enforcing this? And I know there's a time limit. I think you said in the first — you expect this done in the next 48 hours or so.

    But if people don't comply, are you prepared to require — to force people to have vaccinations?

  • Dr. Oxiris Barbot:

    So, this order applies to individuals who develop measles or are exposed to individuals who have measles, and they, themselves, are found to be non-vaccinated.

    Again, the emphasis is going to be to help them become vaccinated within three days. And the reality is that if, indeed, someone, despite all of our efforts, refuses to be vaccinated, then we will issue violations, which will be $1,000 for each instance.

    So, for example, if a parent has a child who develops measles, they're unvaccinated, they refuse to be vaccinated, for every child they have, it will be $1,000.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And I read that jail time is part of this. Is that right?

  • Dr. Oxiris Barbot:

    You know, we haven't talked about that.

    And, again, we will evaluate every situation on an individual basis, because the emphasis here is to support parents in making well-informed decisions that are going to help keep their children safe and healthy, and, beyond that, ensure that we maximize the number of individuals across the entire community that are immunized, because it's important to note that there are some individuals who can't get vaccinated.

    So, for example, infants younger than six months of age can't be vaccinated. And we have had situations where, unfortunately, there have been infants who have developed the measles, have ended up in the hospital, and have ended up needing care that really could have been prevented by individuals around them becoming vaccinated.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Dr. Oxiris Barbot, who is the New York City commissioner for health and mental hygiene, thank you.

  • Dr. Oxiris Barbot:

    Thank you.

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