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Anti-vaxers make life tough for parents of young babies in New York

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A New York family is keeping their 2-month-old baby secluded in fears that she will be infected with measles before she is old enough to get vaccinated. CNN's Elizabeth Cohen reports.

Posted: May 7, 2019 11:40 AM
Updated: May 7, 2019 11:40 AM

The Singer family has had to change their lives because of a group of people they've never met.

The Singers live in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Rockland County, New York, where a measles outbreak continues to grow, health officials say, because many parents refuse to vaccinate their children.

They would love to vaccinate their daughter, Malky, but at 2 months old, she's too young.

So for another four months, until Malky is old enough to get the vaccine, the Singers are keeping her away from public places.

That means if her three older siblings need new shoes, someone has to stay home with Malky. If the Singers want to go on a family outing to the mall, someone has to stay home with Malky. If they want to go to a restaurant for dinner, someone has to stay home with Malky.

"We've had to change the way we live because of a small minority of people," said Malky's father, Shimon Singer. "It's very inconvenient."

But more than inconvenient, he says, it's emotionally difficult. They fear that despite their best efforts, Malky could still catch the virus.

"It makes you worried all the time," said Singer, who lives in Monsey.

He knows how horrible measles can be. His nephew recently caught measles and had to be hospitalized.

He said a friend of his wife's was vaccinated as a child but also recently caught the virus. She had a high fever for weeks and, at one point, couldn't see. He said she described having measles as "the worst thing that had ever happened to me" and said the pain of childbirth paled in comparison.

"She said, 'It was like every part of my body felt on fire. It was like somebody was inside my body with a bulldozer, destroying organ by organ,' " Singer said.

He doesn't want that to happen to his baby.

"It's a very tremendous concern for us," Singer said. "Is my baby safe? Is she going to get sick? Will she get sick tomorrow? Will she get sick next week?"

Measles not only has been inconvenient and worrisome, it's cost the Singers money.

Singer owns Turtle Boo, an indoor children's play center in nearby Spring Valley. Over the past three months, about 40 families have canceled birthday parties because of a fear of measles. He added that there have been no confirmed cases of measles at his facility.

"It's hurt my employees, too," he said, describing how one worker is having trouble saving up for her honeymoon because of lost tips from parties and another struggles to care for his aging mother.

There have been measles cases in 23 states this year, but the outbreak in New York has been particularly hard to beat. Of the 60 new cases reported nationwide this week by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 52 have been in New York, with 41 in New York City and 11 in Rockland County, about an hour north of the city, where the Singers live.

Last week, Demetre Daskalakis, New York City's deputy health commissioner, said the outbreak isn't under control "because we have people actively working against us."

He was referring to anti-vaccination propaganda claiming that the MMR vaccine, which protects against measles, mumps and rubella, causes autism and other health issues -- which is scientifically inaccurate.

About 73% of children ages 1 to 18 in Rockland County have received an MMR vaccine, according to the county.

While there are no national numbers for children in that age range, the median vaccination rate nationwide for kindergartners was 94% for the 2017-2018 school year according to the CDC.

Children are supposed to receive their first dose of MMR between 12-15 months of age, and their second dose between the ages of four and six, according to the CDC. However, the agency now recommends that children in outbreak areas receive their first dose of MMR at six months.

Singer emphasizes that most of his community does vaccinate, and it's a minority that does not.

"All the rabbis in the community, all the community leaders, every single one of them urges everyone to go and vaccinate, and certain people still believe that they're smarter than all the doctors, smarter than all the community leaders, smarter than everyone," he said. "They put in jeopardy other people's livelihoods and make other people's lives hard."

The decision to vaccinate or not vaccinate has divided New York's religious community.

Some families state on invitations to weddings and other events that only vaccinated people will be welcomed.

Perela is four months pregnant, and asked not to give her last name to protect her privacy. She lives in Monsey, and says if she has a boy, she'll put the same thing on the invitation to his bris, or ritual circumcision.

She worries about what she'll do if the measles outbreak is still going on after she gives birth.

"It's just sad there are people out there that are not willing to vaccinate totally out of ignorance, because they read an article or watched a YouTube clip and then decided," she said.

Like many families in the religious community, after she goes back to work, she had planned to send her baby to a sitter who cares for several children in her home. If the outbreak is still going on, though, she and her husband will pay a babysitter to come to their house at twice the price.

"It's one thing when someone makes a decision that only affects them. But when someone doesn't vaccinate their children, it's extremely selfish," she said.

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