Rockland County, New York, was hit hard by the measles outbreak. It was not for nothing that anti-vaccine groups held a rally in the area on Monday evening attended by hundreds of participants, most of them ultra-Orthodox Jews.
The "Vaccine Symposium" was sponsored by a Jewish group from Monsey, New, York. Participants invoked religious beliefs and pseudo-sciences that they claimed to invalidate the efficacy of vaccines.
Despite the growing measles outbreak – it reached a record high of over 800 cases across the country, 75 new cases came this week from New York since the disease was declared eliminated in 2000 ̵
Speakers at the rally included Andrew Wakefield, whose multi-refuted study linking measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) and autism linked modern vaccine control. In 2010, Britain dismissed Wakefield for medical clearance after finding him guilty of fraud and child abuse.
The New York Times measles epidemic, the worst in the country, began in October in ultra-Orthodox communities after some unvaccinated children contracted measles during a trip to Israel. Most cases in the city were among ultra-Orthodox Jews, though many vaccinate their children.
As Julia Belluz of Vox reported in October, rhetoric against vaccination has become popular for reasons unrelated to religious doctrine. But "the fact that some Orthodox Jews live out of the mainstream, avoid technology, and value rabbinic opinion can make them particularly vulnerable to anti-Vaxxer," she wrote.
One Rabbi Hillel Handler, a well-known ultra-Orthodox anti-Vaxxer, a Vaxxer, asserted at the rally on Monday that the Jews in New York had been "demonized". He also criticized New York City mayor Bill de Blasio, who called him "a German" and "a very underhanded guy," for actions he identified as uniquely labeled Jews during the epidemic.
Despite the measles outbreak, the rally shows that the movement against vaccines is resilient. Hundreds of people gathered outside the state capital of New York on Tuesday to protest against a law banning religious exemptions from vaccination. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. spoke at the rally with a crowd of mothers who cheered him on, even though his family had criticized misinformation dissemination.
Tech companies are trying to fight the anti-vaccine movement. When you search for vaccine-related content on Twitter, the app will display a statement from the US Department of Health at the top of the search results. Instagram has also blocked hashtags that spread misinformation.
It remains to be seen if this is enough to curb a movement that has been classified as a public health crisis. A particular challenge is combating disinformation in dense or island communities that may attend a rally but do not see hashtags on Twitter. The group often shares the same culture, and within the community, false information is circulating to help justify their beliefs about vaccines.
The government's public relations are often mistrustful, further isolating the community of truthful information. In order to move forward with such groups, officials must treat them transparently and sensitively, said the paediatrics professor of the University of Washington School of Medicine, Douglas Opel, to the Wall Street Journal.
The rally Monday shows just how big this challenge is.