By Nick Paumgarten
The New Yorker
One day in the early sixties, Saul Zucker, a pediatrician and anesthesiologist in the Bronx, was treating the child of a New York assemblyman named Alexander Chananau. Amid the stethoscoping and reflex-hammering of a routine checkup, the two men got to talking about polio, which was still a threat to the nation’s youth, in spite of the discovery, the previous decade, of a vaccine. At the time, some states had laws requiring the vaccination of schoolchildren, but New York was not one of them. In his office, on the Grand Concourse, Zucker urged Chananau to push such a law, and shortly afterward the assemblyman introduced a bill in the legislature. The proposal encountered resistance, especially from Christian Scientists, whose faith teaches that disease is a state of mind. (The city’s health commissioner opposed the bill as well, writing to Chananau, “We do not like to legislate the things which can be obtained without legislation.”) To mollify the dissenters, Chananau and others added a religious exemption; you could forgo vaccination if it violated the principles of your faith. In 1966, the bill passed, 150–2, making New York the first state to have a vaccination law with a religious exemption. By the beginning of this year, forty-six other states had a version of such a provision; it has proved to be an exploitable lever for people who, for reasons that typically have nothing to do with religion, are opposed to vaccination. They are widely, and disdainfully, known as anti-vaxxers.
Saul Zucker died in June, five months short of his hundredth birthday. Less than two weeks later, the New York Legislature voted to remove the religious exemption, after a contentious debate during which anti-vaxxers harangued from the galleries. Governor Andrew Cuomo signed the bill that night. Following all this on a live stream was Howard Zucker, Saul’s son. Zucker is a doctor—a pediatrician and an anesthesiologist, like his father, and a cardiologist—as well as a lawyer. He is also New York State’s commissioner of health. For more than six months, he’d been at the forefront of an effort to beat back the anti-vaccination movement, as a result of a measles outbreak in the state. Its severity had goaded politicians to change the law, with his support. Because of the success of the anti-vaccination movement, measles cases have since turned up in twenty-nine other states, but New York has had by far the most cases: 1,046 as of last week, out of a national total of 1,203. This has threatened to wind back decades of success in the containment of the disease since the first measles vaccines were introduced, in 1963—an era when the United States saw between three million and four million cases a year. In 2000, the U.S. declared that measles had been eliminated in the country; if this outbreak isn’t contained by October, it could jeopardize the nation’s so-called measles-elimination status. This would be a dire step back for our public-health system, and a national embarrassment. (Britain, well acquainted with national embarrassment, lost its elimination status this year.)
Picture: CDC/ Dr. Edwin P. Ewing, Jr. [Public domain]