Photo Credit:
Immunization clinic, Wynnum, circa 1951 / Courtesy Brisbane City Council

The New York City health department this week reported an outbreak of chickenpox in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community of the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. According to the report, 75 children have been infected by the virus since March. Also, 72% of the children who were infected had not been vaccinated. The median age of these children is 3, but the report cites victims as old as 10.

Back in 2013, NYC health officials reported 30 cases of Measles — 26 in Borough Park and 4 in Williamsburg. A Health Department spokesperson said that “there have been two hospitalizations, a miscarriage and a case of pneumonia as a result of this outbreak. All cases involved adults or children who were not vaccinated due to refusal or delays in vaccination.”

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Normally, Chickenpox is prevented through inoculation with the Varicella vaccine given by injection just under the skin, one dose of which prevents 95% of moderate disease cases and 100% of the severe disease. Two doses of vaccine are considered more effective than one. If given to those who are not immune within five days of exposure to chickenpox, it prevents most cases of the disease.

The problem is that by reducing the number of vaccinated children, the community at large is exposed to a greater risk. Vaccinating a large portion of the population also protects those who are not vaccinated. In fact, the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends routine vaccination only if a country can keep more than 80% of its people vaccinated.

Jennifer Rosen, director of Epidemiology and Surveillance at the city’s Immunization Bureau, issued a release saying, “Please ensure that your patients and staff are up to date with varicella vaccine. Infants, adolescents, adults, pregnant women, and immunocompromised persons are at risk for more severe disease and complications. Complications include pneumonia, bacterial infection of the skin and soft tissues, meningitis, encephalitis, birth defects and death.”

According to Department of Health press secretary Christopher Miller, the outbreak has been confined to Williamsburg. DOH has reached out to the Williamsburg ultra-Orthodox community with pamphlets in Yiddish it distributed at an Hatzolah health fair last Sunday, and through local Jewish schools.

According to Rabbi David Niederman, head of the United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg, there will be a meeting Wednesday of community leaders, healthcare providers and school officials with the Department of Health to discuss bringing an end to the chickenpox crisis.

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