The growing measles outbreak is colliding with Passover, one of the holiest Jewish celebrations and a time when families travel to be together.
New York City health officials have warned that the holiday, with its large get-togethers and long, ritual meals, risks spreading measles, which is highly contagious and easily transmitted.
City officials expect the number of measles cases to increase over the next several weeks partly because of gatherings over the holidays, said Herminia Palacio, the city’s deputy mayor for health and human services. The outbreak is worst in ultra-Orthodox communities in Brooklyn, N.Y., and nearby Rockland County.
“We’re very concerned about Passover,” Dr. Palacio said.
Passover begins Friday and ends Saturday evening, April 27. The holiday commemorates the exodus of Hebrews from Egypt.
There are now 329 reported cases of measles in New York City, the country’s largest outbreak site, with a spike seen after the Purim holiday in mid-March, New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene officials said. Overall, the number of new measles cases is continuing to accelerate across the U.S., for a total of 555 in 20 states.
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Pediatricians are urging parents in affected communities to get an early dose of the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine for babies that are six months and older; in certain sections of the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn the vaccine is mandated by a commissioner’s order issued last week. Oxiris Barbot, the city’s health commissioner, said the city has anecdotal information that the number of people getting the vaccine is going up.
In Williamsburg, Victor Friedman’s family will be celebrating the first Seder of Passover at his parent’s home nearby. It is a gathering that should include four or six other families, and at least 20 people, with a dinner that will stretch on for four or five hours, he said.
He has checked with all of the other families if they vaccinate their children and did the same with the families that live in his 10-apartment building. With an infant son too young to be vaccinated, he said, he couldn’t take the risk and was relieved to find out that everyone vaccinates. But, he said, he and his wife will be “very careful with other places we go.”
“We are trying to do our best to gather information,” Mr. Friedman said. “If someone is not vaccinated or might have symptoms, we will be on top of it.”
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Medical professionals who serve the Orthodox community and rabbinical authorities have called on parents to vaccinate their children, said Rabbi David Zwiebel, executive vice president of Agudath Israel of America. “The large majority of Jewish schoolchildren are indeed vaccinated.”
But many schools are closed during Passover so the city’s recent measures to prod people into vaccination won’t work, said Gerald Schulman, a pediatrician with an office in the Williamsburg and Midwood neighborhoods of Brooklyn. Parents have called him to ask about what to do about coming travel, including trips to Israel where there is a large measles outbreak.
He said he tells his patients to get their children vaccinated and, for those with very young babies, to avoid crowded areas and large groups, stand off to the side and “maybe you don’t take your four-month-old everywhere.”
“Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of guidelines. I really tell parents it’s a personal issue,” said Dr. Schulman. “There’s no way for me to estimate the risk.”
For the upcoming Chol Hamoed, also known as the “intermediate days” between the two Sabbath weekends of Passover, there will be a trip to a New Jersey amusement park organized for teens by NCSY, formerly known as the National Conference of Synagogue Youth. Rabbi Micah Greenland, who leads that group, said that in emailed messages about the trip, there will be a notice about making sure children are up-to-date on vaccines or, if the child has viruslike symptoms, to avoid the event.
Arona Berow, 39, who is due with her second child in May, said she won’t visit her parents who live in Rockland County for Passover. Ms. Berow lives in an Orthodox area of Washington Heights, N.Y.
“Thank God there are no known cases of the measles where I live,” she said. “But my area, everyone clears out for Passover. I’m actually worried about after the holiday. People are traveling, what are they going to bring back?”
Motty Jacobson, 27, said he, his wife and two young children typically spend the intermediate days of Passover at New York City parks and zoos or visiting museums. While his children are up-to-date on their vaccinations, Mr. Jacobson said he is worried about exposure to measles and will likely stay home and do arts and crafts or go somewhere remote.
Mr. Jacobson, though, said he has no plans to avoid synagogue during Passover.
“You have to go pray. I’m not going to totally lose myself and be hysterical about it,” he said. “I just hope rabbis hang up signs in their synagogues saying, ‘If you did not vaccinate your children or if you yourself aren’t vaccinated, please don’t pray here.’”