First US case of polio in nearly a decade diagnosed
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First US case of polio in nearly a decade diagnosed

The victim is an unvaccinated Orthodox man from Monsey

The first person in the United States to be diagnosed with polio is an Orthodox Jewish man from Monsey. (Getty/Catherine Falls Commercial)
The first person in the United States to be diagnosed with polio is an Orthodox Jewish man from Monsey. (Getty/Catherine Falls Commercial)

The first case of polio in the United States in a decade has been diagnosed in an Orthodox Jewish man who lives in Monsey.

Local health officials announced the case last week and said they would begin a drive to increase vaccination against the potentially deadly virus. They said the victim was experiencing paralysis, a hallmark of the disease, and that he had not been vaccinated against it.

Many sources said that the man is part of Rockland County’s substantial Jewish community. A local elected official said the same thing in a now-deleted statement condemning those who do not vaccinate, which drew fierce criticism on Twitter from many in that community.

“He was released from the hospital,” one source said, on condition of anonymity. “He’s a young adult, in a wheelchair. He got married recently.”

Polio is a highly contagious disease that can cause paralysis and even death. Before an effective vaccine was developed in the early 1950s, tens of thousands of Americans were infected annually; some wound up with permanent disabilities and a handful were consigned to iron lungs, machines that would help them breathe mechanically after their own bodies became too weakened to do so on their own. A 1952 outbreak killed more than 3,000 people, mostly children.

The new polio case comes amid fierce backlash against vaccination in some Orthodox communities. That backlash emerged in response to a measles outbreak in Rockland in 2018 and 2019 that was centered in the area’s charedi community, and then it was fueled by the covid-19 pandemic.

The county barred unvaccinated children from entering public places during the measles outbreak.

According to state data, 60% of Rockland County children follow the recommended vaccine schedule and receive three doses of the polio vaccine by times they’re 2. Nationally, more than 92% of children are fully vaccinated by that age. Last year, Rockland County’s rate of completion of the childhood vaccination schedule, which protects against a range of diseases, was 42%, the lowest in New York State.

While the county has many residents who are not Orthodox Jews, its many Orthodox enclaves are its fastest-growing areas, in part because of their large number of young children.

Last week, Rockland County Executive Ed Day said the county is not “immune to vaccine hesitancy.

“It’s exactly what led to the measles crisis we dealt with, and why we are constantly doing what we can to be proactive about getting people vaccinated,” Mr. Day said.

Rockland County now offers free polio vaccinations in Pomona for any unvaccinated New Yorkers.

State Sen. James Skoufis, a Democrat whose district includes part of Rockland, released a statement on Twitter in a now-deleted tweet asking to “bring the full force of the law down on those who have skirted these requirements.”

He singled out Ramapo yeshivas as having “a history of non-compliance with the state’s vaccine laws.” A source that that said there are more than 120 yeshivas in the area.

“Additional enforcement is required in light of today’s news,” Mr. Skoufis said in his statement.

Mr. Skoufis’ statement drew criticism from within the Jewish community. Yossi Gestetner, a Rockland County resident whose Orthodox Jewish Public Affairs Council worked to combat negative publicity stemming from the measles outbreak in 2019, tweeted that Mr. Skoufis’ statement was “hateful and inflammatory.

“I missed your tweet calling out LGBTQ+ by name and as a community for Monkeypox,” Mr. Gestetner wrote, referring to the outbreak of another virus. “So why treat visibly Jewish people this way? Every elected Dem should condemn you.”

Mr. Gestetner said that he recognized that there is vaccine hesitancy within the Orthodox community, but he rejected the notion that vaccine hesitancy “is just an Orthodox community issue.

“People have real concerns about vaccines,” he said. “Even if they’re wrong, the government should go out there and show them the benefit of these vaccines rather than just yelling at people.”

Mr. Gestetner said he worried that directing attention to the Orthodox community could fuel antisemitism in the area, adding that comments like the one Mr. Skoufis made do not help.

After the backlash to his statement, Mr. Skoufis wrote on Twitter that he met with members of the Rockland County Jewish community to discuss the situation. “I truly appreciate the sensitivity on the ground and the need to make sure the language used like that in my statement from today better reflects that sensitivity,” he tweeted.

After the 2019 measles outbreak, public health campaigns resulted in more children being vaccinated against the virus, including within the Rockland and Brooklyn Jewish communities that were hardest hit. But since then, the advent of cove-19 vaccines have heightened tensions around vaccination in those communities and beyond, with inaccurate information circulating widely. Zev Zelenko, an Orthodox doctor who became a hero in some circles for promoting untested treatments and opposing vaccination, was based just outside of Rockland County.

Meanwhile, the pandemic also has caused childhood vaccinations to slow across the United States, as families have delayed or deprioritized routine health care.

“Childhood vaccine hesitancy is huge, and I think a lot of it may have worsened with the whole pandemic of misinformation,” Blimi Marcus, an Orthodox nurse who led a covid-19 vaccine campaign in her community, said in December.

The Rockland County polio vaccination site will be open Friday morning and Monday for a longer period at the Pomona Health Complex at 50 Sanitarium Road. Officials are urging anyone who is unvaccinated, including people who are pregnant, or who are concerned they might have been exposed to be vaccinated or boosted during the clinics.

Jewish Telegraphic Agency/New York Jewish Week

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