MONSEY, N.Y. — In a suburban shopping center an hour north of New York City, hundreds of mostly ultra-Orthodox Jews gathered in a sex-partitioned ballroom to hear leaders of the national anti-vaccine movement.
Sustained applause greeted Del Bigtree, a former television producer-turned-activist who often wears a yellow star of David, similar to those required of Jews in Nazi Germany, to show solidarity with parents ordered to keep unvaccinated children at home.
Bigtree described the purported dangers of childhood vaccines in phrases that also conjured the Nazis.
“They have turned our children into the largest human experiment in history — all of history,” he said.
The turnout last week in this suburb hard hit by measles helps explain why New York has become ground zero in one of this country’s largest and longest-lasting measles outbreak in nearly 30 years. Even in a religious community grappling with more than 700 cases in Rockland County and New York City since last fall — among them, children on oxygen in intensive care units — anxious and confused parents said they came because they are afraid of vaccines and seeking guidance about what to do.
Ethan, a 36-year-old father of six from Queens who declined to give his last name, said he attended the event out of “a genuine concern” for his family, driven by his wife’s research into vaccines. She had read “a lot of literature” and watched Bigtree’s film, which accuses the government of covering up a purported link between the measles vaccine and autism — a tie repeatedly disproved by studies around the world involving hundreds of thousands of children.
As a result, Ethan said, measles frightened him far less than what Bigtree and others described as the toxic substances in vaccines.
“I love doctors,” Ethan said, but they have “blind obedience” to the vaccine schedule. “God gave us a wonderful, beautiful body that heals itself.”
State and national health officials say groups such as Bigtree’s are directly responsible for the measles outbreaks that struck Orthodox communities here and in New York City this year. Through an aggressive social media campaign, pamphleting and traveling road shows that pop up in receptive and often insular communities, officials say, the anti-vaccine movement has produced pockets of unvaccinated children where the highly contagious and sometimes deadly disease can catch fire.
The groups’ claims are flatly contradicted by science, but their rhetoric has sent vaccination rates plummeting across the country, including among Eastern European immigrants outside Portland, the Somali community in Minnesota and ultra-Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn, and here in Rockland County — all groups that have seen recent outbreaks.
“This is a national movement of people who are nothing but charlatans, conspiracy theorists and people … spreading misinformation,” said Rockland County Executive Ed Day. “The type of propaganda they spread is a danger to the health and safety of children within our community and around the world.”
In many ways, vaccines are a victim of their own success. Years ago, people were intimately familiar with the suffering caused by diseases such as polio, whooping cough and measles. Today, they’ve been virtually eliminated — along with the memory of their terrible effects.
As a result, generations of parents have grown up “more likely to be scared of the vaccine than the disease,” said Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “It’s very easy to appeal to those fears.”
The modern anti-vaccine movement began about 40 years ago in response to legitimate concerns about the side effects of a pertussis vaccine. But it has metastasized into something far darker in the echo chamber of Facebook chat rooms, WhatsApp and YouTube — especially against a backdrop of rising suspicion of elites, including drugmakers, doctors and public health officials.
Anti-vaccine activists have a rhetorical advantage: They speak with absolute certainty about frightening cases of so-called vaccine injuries based on changes parents say they observe in their children after getting shots.
Scientists and researchers, by contrast, rarely speak in absolutes. They say vaccines save countless lives, but like all medicines, have side effects — albeit rare ones. And they sometimes challenge what parents think they have seen with their own eyes by explaining that health problems such as autism often become apparent around the same time children are receiving multiple shots — even though there is no causal connection.
Most Americans continue to support immunizations, as evidenced by high national vaccination rates, but there are worrisome trends: The percentage of children younger than 2 who haven’t received any vaccinations, for instance, has quadrupled since 2001, according to the CDC.
And in more than a dozen hot spots across the country, including the Seattle and Portland areas, which have had measles outbreaks, immunization rates have plunged as an increasing number of parents receive nonmedical exemptions to avoid having to give their children the shots, according to a study last year.
The link between places with low vaccination rates and measles outbreaks is clear: In some of Williamsburg’s yeshivas, for instance, up to 22% of children did not receive the MMR vaccine for religious reasons during the 2017-18 school year, according to New York state data.
Anti-vaccine activists encourage that trend by arguing that the vaccine is potentially more dangerous than the disease.
At the Monsey forum, Rabbi Hillel Handler called resistance to measles shots a brave act. The virus, which once killed several hundred Americans every year, “is not a serious disease,” he said, adding that those who battle it in childhood grow up stronger.
Public health officials are trying to fight back. They note that children who’ve recovered from measles are more susceptible to infections and are at risk for serious complications.
In the Brooklyn neighborhoods at the heart of the New York City outbreak, nurse practitioner Blima Marcus holds regular meetings with small groups of ultra-Orthodox women in their homes, spending hours answering their questions. As a member of the same Orthodox community, Marcus says it is easier for her to gain their trust.
Often, she said, the women are surprised by the scientific studies she brings that disprove links between the measles vaccine and autism. Afterward, some tell her they feel they’ve been “really misled.”
“These are insular women who are trying to do the best for their children,” Marcus said. “At the end of the day, I feel the majority of people who don’t vaccinate are the victims of a one-way propaganda machine.”