Blima Marcus, an inconspicuous nurse, wife and mother living on a tree-lined street in the ultra-Orthodox enclave of Borough Park, never expected to be hounded by journalists, TV crews and public health officials.
But when an outbreak of measles, concentrated in ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities, led New York City officials to declare a public health emergency in April, Marcus stepped forward to battle the rapidly spreading misinformation within her community.
“I’m proactive,” she said matter-of-factly, explaining how she became the force holding together a tightly choreographed resistance to the “anti-vaxx” movement within the ultra-Orthodox community. “If something seems wrong, I’m compelled to do something about it.”
That “something” includes convening a national task force of Orthodox Jewish nurses to re-educate community members about vaccines; publishing 10,000 copies of a 40-page informational booklet combating a similar booklet disseminated by anti-vaxxer groups (a second printing of an expanded booklet is currently in the works); and schooling New York City public health officials and members of the national Center for Disease Control and Prevention around her dining room table on culturally sensitive ways to reach the ultra-Orthodox community.
And that’s all in her “free” time. Marcus is also a nurse practitioner at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and an adjunct professor at Hunter-Bellevue School of Nursing.
“My goal is to educate our community with proper information so well-meaning parents can make proper health choices,” said Marcus, speaking to me calmly in her living room as her three-year-old son bobbed around and her cell phone buzzed every few moments. She checked her phone only once as we spoke — “So sorry,” she said, “I just got a WhatsApp update that there’s another measles party going on down the block.” (At “measles parties,” parents intentionally expose unvaccinated children to the virus.)
How does she stay positive?
“It’s hard,” she said. “It’s disheartening to see the way anti-vaxxers have preyed upon our community’s fears and vulnerabilities. But we have to remember that parents are not the culprits. Approaching the issue with facts, sensitivity, empathy and kindness — that’s the only real remedy.”
Avid reader: When she has time, Marcus likes curling up with a good novel. She is a particular fan of author Herman Wouk.