Scientists predicted a measles outbreak in Queens. Here’s why.

Military members administer a measles vaccine.  U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Sandra Marrero/Released

Military members administer a measles vaccine.

U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Sandra Marrero/Released

By Phineas Rueckert

Since last September, more than 600 people have come down with measles across New York City, the majority of them in Brooklyn and Queens. 

For many, the outbreak may have come as a shock, given the fact that endemic measles was officially declared to be eliminated from the United States in 2000. But if you ask Sahotra Sarkar, a researcher at the University of Texas - Austin, we shouldn’t be surprised that it’s come back with such a fury — and settled in Queens, specifically.  

“That’s fairly clear cut,” Sarkar, one of four authors of a study on predicting measles outbreaks that appeared in the medical journal The Lancet this May, said of the resurgence of measles in New York City. Rising measles infections, he said, stems from a combination of low vaccination rates and high inflows of people carrying the disease into a particular region. Queens, given its proximity to Orthodox Jewish communities with low vaccination rates in Brooklyn and its two major airports, was an obvious community vulnerable to an outbreak. 

“Our model is a very simple model: we just look at the place where the virus comes in,” Sarkar said, “but where it can really settle is all the counties that are adjacent to the counties with the airports.” 

With measles outbreaks affecting places like Europe and Israel, visitors to New York City are bringing the airborne disease with them to JFK, he said. While most adults are not susceptible to the disease, young children are, NYC Health warns.  

Sarkar suggested that introducing an International Certificate of Vaccination, or “yellow card,” could help stem the tide of infection. The card would require travelers coming from measles-affected areas to be vaccinated and are distributed by the World Health Organization. They are still required for visiting parts of Latin America and West Africa, but not regions that measles are spreading out from, including Europe and Asia. 

“Vaccination is about the only means we have of controlling measles, which is very, very highly infectious,” Sarkar said. 

He also said that counties such as Queens that house major airports should play a larger role in preventing against infectious diseases, such as through quarantining sick passengers. “If a county has a very busy international airport, these counties also have a responsibility to monitor these airports against infectious diseases in times when there are outbreaks,” he said.