As measles cases continue to proliferate, so too does litigation over public health officials’ efforts to stem the contagion. Although the outcome of this litigation is uncertain, one point is already apparent: Although public health officials wield extraordinary legal powers, they need new tools to fight 21st-century outbreaks.
Health officials in New York City and Rockland County, N.Y., are facing difficult situations. Between September 2018 and April 8, 2019, more than 250 cases of measles were confirmed in four ZIP codes in Brooklyn. Between October 2018 and March 26, 2019, there were 153 confirmed cases in Rockland County. As of last week, 626 cases of measles have been confirmed in 22 states. In 2016, only 86 cases were reported in the entire U.S.
The current outbreaks, like those before them, have centered in communities with a large number of unvaccinated individuals. The New York cases have mostly affected Hasidic Jews, but other recent outbreaks have occurred in other populations. In all instances, the problem is that many parents choose not to vaccinate their children, undermining herd immunity and allowing the highly-contagious measles virus to spread.