The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that the number of measles cases has grown to over 700 and is the worst outbreak in decades.
New York’s Rockland County has more than 200 of those cases, and state legislators are calling for the immediate passage of a bill to mandate vaccinations unless a person has a medical exemption.
The lawmakers say the current law, which allows a child to skip vaccinations because of religious reasons, is creating too big a loophole and leading to what they called a growing health crisis.
Rockland County Executive Ed Day tried to declare a state of emergency in his county, but it was overturned in court. Day, a Republican, said the bill is a “godsend.”
“To wait is a recipe for medical disaster,” Day said. “I can’t make it more clear than that.”
The outbreak began in the county last October, after seven infected travelers from Israel visited New York’s ultra-orthodox Jewish communities in the county and in Brooklyn, and the illness spread.
On Monday, Day was at the State Capitol with the Assembly and Senate sponsors of a bill that would require all children to be immunized against measles and other diseases unless they have a medical exemption.
Bronx Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz, a Democrat, blames the outbreak on the anti-vaccination movement, which he said has been discredited by scientific research. He said vaccinations have saved millions of lives.
“Measles can kill. Measles can cause permanent harm - blindness, deafness, brain damage,” Dinowitz said. “It’s unbelievable that in this day and age in the 21st century, there are people out there who are spreading lies, who are spreading misinformation, about vaccinations.”
Dinowitz said no major religion has a policy against vaccinations, and he believes people are citing the religious exemption when their opposition actually stems from personal reasons.
“The religious exemption is a de facto personal belief exemption,” he said. “When in fact it has nothing to do with religion.”
Gov. Andrew Cuomo also has voiced objections to the bill, although not on scientific grounds, saying there might be First Amendment issues involved.
The bill sponsors said they are talking to Cuomo about his reservations. Sen. Brad Hoylman said he believes the requirement would be constitutional.
“There is a long (history of) case law supporting eliminating nonmedical exemptions,” Hoylman said.
He said a similar measure in California was upheld in the courts.
Cuomo, speaking Monday on Long Island, revised his position, saying he now backs an end to religious exemptions for vaccinations for this particular outbreak.
“I do not think, in this case, the religious exemption is appropriate,” Cuomo said.
But the governor did not say whether he supports the bill.
Cuomo said health officials in his administration are working with Rockland County and New York City to address what he said is a “public health emergency.”
Hoylman and other supporters of the measure say they don’t know if there are enough votes in the Legislature to pass the bill into law. But they said they hope to garner enough support to have a law by summer.
Sen. James Skoufis, who represents portions of Rockland County, said if that doesn’t happen, things could get much worse.
“In a couple of months, everyone’s on summer vacation,” Skoufis said. “And we’re going to have infected children, infected families traveling all around this state, all around this state, all around this country, infecting other New Yorkers and Americans. We have to act now.”
In the meantime, the Senate has begun a public awareness campaign about the importance of vaccinations.