New York measles outbreak: Judge upholds ban on unvaccinated students attending school

Parents must prove children's immunity with receipts of MMR vaccination under state law

Michael Gold
Thursday 14 March 2019 09:57 GMT
The World Health Organization warns of global rise in measles cases

With New York state facing one of its most severe measles outbreaks in decades, public health officials in a suburban community took the extraordinary step in December of banning unvaccinated students from attending school, regardless of whether they had received religious or medical exemptions for the vaccine.

The parents of 42 children affected by the ban at the school, the Green Meadow Waldorf School, sued the Rockland County health department, asking a federal judge to issue an injunction to allow the children to return.

On Tuesday, the request was denied.

In a hearing at US District Court in White Plains, judge Vincent Bricetti said the parents failed to prove “that public interest weighs in favour of granting an injunction,” according to The Journal News.

“While no one enjoys the fact that these kids are out of school, these orders have worked,” the county’s attorney, Thomas E Humbach, said in a statement about the decision. “They have helped prevent the measles outbreak from spreading to this school population.”

The decision added to a growing public pushback against people who do not vaccinate their children. Last week, an Ohio teenager who got vaccinated against his family’s wishes testified before Congress that he believed his mother had fallen prey to widely debunked conspiracy theories about immunisation dangers.

Days later, New York lawmakers proposed a bill to allow teenagers to get vaccinated without parental consent. On Monday, local chapters of the American Academy of Paediatrics expressed their support for the legislation.

So far, no confirmed cases of measles had been reported at Green Meadow, a private school offering early childhood and K-12 programs that, like other Waldorf schools, follow a teaching philosophy focused on nondenominational spiritual development.

But Rockland County has been the epicentre of the measles outbreak in New York, with 146 confirmed cases since October, the vast majority of them among those 18 and under. Many cases have involved members of Orthodox Jewish communities where vaccination rates tend to be lower than average, public health officials have said.

All of the children at the centre of the lawsuit had received approved religion-based exemptions to vaccination, according to Michael Sussman, a lawyer for the parents who sued Rockland’s health department. But neither they nor their parents are Orthodox Jews, he said.

Rockland County’s so-called “exclusion orders” in December was the first time county officials had taken the step to ban unvaccinated children from schools, a county spokesperson said. Under the orders, unvaccinated children were not allowed to attend targeted schools until the school’s vaccination rate reached 95 per cent.

Even when schools did not have confirmed cases of measles, as with Green Meadow, officials were still worried that unvaccinated children could be exposed to measles in other public places, like shopping malls, and would then spread the disease at their schools, said Ed Day, the Rockland County executive.

At one point, 60 schools, many of them in ultra-Orthodox communities, and 6,000 students were affected by the orders, officials said. About half of the schools have reached the required vaccination rate, county officials said.

The complaint filed in court said that Rockland County officials violated the children’s constitutional rights by forcing them to stay home. The order also “substantially disrupted” the children’s education, the complaint said.

Vicki Larson, a spokesperson for Green Meadow, said the school had no official stance on vaccinations but was complying with New York state law, which allows religious exemptions to vaccination and immunisation requirements.

But she said that the school was following the county’s exclusion order and working with the Rockland County Health Department. To return to school students would have to prove immunity to measles or receipt of the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccination, she said.

“We’re ready to welcome back our excluded students as soon as it’s legally possible,” Ms Larson said.

The New York Times

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