The U.S. is grappling with record numbers of measles cases since the disease was declared eliminated in the U.S. back in 2000. In Rockland County, New York – ground zero of the current outbreak – the health commissioner blames an anti-vaccine pamphlet that’s been circulating in the Northeast for years.
Dr. Patricia Ruppert, the health commissioner of Rockland County where there have been 225 measles cases confirmed since October, told CBS News’ Dr. Jon LaPook that she’s certain the real number is much higher.
“I think this has been a long time in coming,” Ruppert said. “The truth is there are a lot of unreported cases out there.”
Ruppert says misinformation is fueling the rise in cases, especially within the county’s orthodox Jewish community. For at least the last four years, what’s come to be known as the “PEACH pamphlet” has been targeting orthodox Jewish communities in the Northeast.
“It holds a lot of unscientific and erroneous information,” Ruppert said.
The pamphlet claims vaccines are a contributing factor in causing autism even though the overwhelming consensus of the scientific community is that vaccines do not cause autism. But Ruppert had no idea who is behind the pamphlet. So we tried to find out.
The pamphlet’s cover says it is “a project of parents educating and advocating for children’s health,” or “PEACH.” That organization’s website posted a statement saying it had nothing to do with the pamphlet, even though it hosted a copy on its website until last month when the pamphlet was taken down. The website lists one address in Brooklyn but all we found was a windowless concrete building.
We found a second address in the company business records but when our team knocked on the door nobody there knew anything about PEACH. The pamphlet also lists several hotlines to call for more information.
“Welcome to the truth about vaccines,” one of the recordings goes. “There is a role that vaccines are playing in creating the ground work for these children’s immune systems to start to show signs of impairment and destruction.”
Protesters are gathering at the New York State Capitol Tuesday to fight a bill to end religious exemptions for vaccines are expected to claim legislators are attacking their religious freedom. But in orthodox Jewish communities currently experiencing measles outbreaks, rabbis have told us there is nothing in Judaism that prohibits vaccines.
Dr. Aaron Glatt, an infectious disease specialist and an orthodox rabbi in Woodmere, New York, said anti-vaccine activists “make up data.”
“They change their reasoning as soon as it’s disproven and they pick another,” Glatt said.
On Sunday at his temple, Glatt lectured about the safety and effectiveness of vaccines and held a testing event to check people’s blood for evidence of immunity. He told LaPook he’s known about the PEACH pamphlet for a number of years.
“Some of the religious information they provide is embarrassing,” Glatt said.
He hopes it doesn’t take deaths to make a difference, but he’s not optimistic.
“I hope the answer to that is ‘no’ but part of me says, ‘yes.’ I literally pray that I’m not proven right because there’s deaths and people then switch their opinion,” Glatt said.
CBS News obtained anonymous text messages sent last month to orthodox Jewish fathers in Brooklyn while they were in temple. When we called the number provided in the text, we got another misleading statement: “This vaccine will cause swelling of the brain. They all do. Every single vaccine causes encephalitis.”
Ruppert has been scrambling to fight the false information in Rockland County about vaccines.
“What we’ve done in these months was to offer information in other ways: hangers on the doors, pamphlets in the synagogues, pamphlets at the house,” Ruppert said.
Amid the community’s rising fear, Ruppert is doing whatever she can to control the outbreak. In a typical year, Rockland County gives about 1,200 measles vaccines. Since October, they have administered more than 20,000. She doesn’t think there’s been enough pressure by public health officials and the media on the anti-vaccine movement.
“I don’t think we have provided the pressure that we should have probably all along,” she said.
The PEACH organization would not speak to CBS News on the record. On Monday, we learned that PEACH changed its name, but it continues to say it promotes education and children’s safety.
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