‘Measles parties’ and anti-vaxxers fueled 2019 outbreak in NYC, study finds


Don’t let history repeat itself.

Last year’s measles outbreak in New York City was significantly impacted by parents who refused to vaccinate their children and those who made their kids participate in ill-advised “measles parties,” a new study has found.

The parties involved healthy children deliberately playing with a sick child to get the measles in the hopes of “getting it over with” and gaining future immunity. The findings could serve as a dire warning for those hosting “COVID-19 parties” with comparable intentions — and similarly devastating consequences.

The study, published Wednesday in the journal Science Advances, helps explain why NYC experienced the US’s largest measles outbreak in three decades in 2018-19. It also speaks to the implications of current declining vaccination rates during the coronavirus pandemic, says Wan Yang, Ph.D., the study’s author.

“These findings demonstrate the rippling effects of vaccine hesitancy to all susceptible age groups, particularly to infants too young to receive their first dose of MMR [measles, mumps and rubella] vaccine,” Yang said, in a statement.

For her research, Yang — an assistant professor of epidemiology at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health — simulated transmissions in an Orthodox Jewish community using city measles case data and a computer model.

She found that, although about a quarter of 1- to 4-year-olds were vulnerable to the disease at the onset of the outbreak in October 2018, the high number of infections couldn’t have been achieved without increased contact for the children — likely through “measles parties.”

During the 2018-2019 measles outbreak, some families took the opposite approach and quarantined themselves — a somewhat more foreign concept at the time.

Mandatory vaccination orders and vaccination campaigns by the city’s Department of Health were largely to thank for ending the outbreak: Over 32,000 children and teenagers, under 19, were vaccinated as a result of the mandate and campaign, Yang found. If many New Yorkers continue to not get vaccinated, says Yang, children should begin being vaccinated even earlier.

“Administration of the first dose of the routine MMR vaccine earlier than the current guideline of 1 year may be needed to protect infants, if high levels of vaccine hesitancy persist,” says Yang in a press release.

Concerns of another measles outbreak are currently unlikely, but Yang warns that a recent drop in vaccinations makes the city vulnerable to one when social distancing measures are lifted.

“At the moment, chances of an immediate measles outbreak in the city remain low, thanks to the recent vaccination campaigns and current social distancing practice. But as the number of unvaccinated children increases and contact resumes, there would be a much greater risk of disease spread,” Yang says. “It’s crucial that parents work with their doctors to make sure their children are vaccinated timely.”



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