BUFFALO, N.Y. — At a time when New York leads the nation in measles cases, there is a bill now sitting in the state Senate and Assembly health committees that aims to end the religious exemption for vaccines.
Erie County Health Commissioner Dr. Gale Burstein wants action in Albany, saying if the bill does not pass this legislative session "It could mean continued escalation of the number of measles cases."
She adds, "The number of measles cases, which are growing every week in the United States, is staggering."
In the first six months of 2019, according to the CDC, there are already more than 1,000 confirmed cases of measles in the U.S.
This is the greatest number of cases reported in the U.S. since 1992 and since measles was declared eliminated in 2000. 70 percent of those cases are in New York State.
"I mean, it could be now or never," said Burstein of getting the legislation passed this session.
Her concern is what the growing measles risk will mean for a new school year in the fall.
While there have been no confirmed cases in Erie County, so far this year, Burstein worries the busy travel season could dramatically change that
"There's no reason to believe we're going to escape that," said Burstein.
The bill, which is stuck in the NYS Assembly and Senate health committees, would repeal the religious exemption for vaccines. This would result in more children having to get immunized to attend public school or licensed daycare facilities because the only exemptions granted will be for medical reasons.
"People who are immunocompromised," explained the health commissioner. "Like people who have cancer are taking other medications that limit your immunity or people who are born with hereditary disorders. Both children and adults, they're not able to get all vaccines. And the measles vaccine is one of those vaccines in those categories. So that is a true medical exemption."
Governor Andrew Cuomo said in a radio interview with WAMU Thursday morning that the bill has to pass, but he admits the likelihood is 50/50. There are just about eight work days left before the legislative session adjourns for the summer.
"If it doesn't happen, I believe we put this state's public health at risk," said Cuomo to WAMU. "I respect the religious exemption. I hear the anti-vaxxers, but public health comes first."
Dr. Burstein admits she reached out to NYS Assemblyman Robin Schimminger who sits on the assembly health committee.
She hopes, if the science doesn't move the bill out of committee, the costs for taxpayers will.
"The costs are tremendous," said Burstein. "So far, New York City, as of last week, the health commissioner reported that, so far, they've spent $2.3-million on their measles outbreak and that's just in New York City."
We also reached out to Assemblyman Schimminger to find out where he stands on the legislation and to see if the bill is on the Assembly health committee's agenda for discussion.
His spokesperson replied Friday morning, saying in an e-mail, "He has not taken a position on this specific bill. He is still reviewing all of the information that is coming in as he is receiving a great deal of it from both sides."
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