Measles Cases Soar In Minnesota Thanks To Anti-Vaccination Activists Targeting Somali Immigrants

Thanks to anti-vaccination activists spreading false propaganda, measles cases are hitting record highs among the Somali immigrant community in Minnesota.

Childhood Vaccine

Minnesota is experiencing its worst measles outbreak in decades thanks to anti-vaccine activists who have spread their propaganda among the Somali immigrants that have moved into the state in recent years:

The young mother started getting advice early on from friends in the close-knit Somali immigrant community here. Don’t let your children get the vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella — it causes autism, they said.

Suaado Salah listened. And this spring, her 3-year-old boy and 18-month-old girl contracted measles in Minnesota’s largest outbreak of the highly infectious and potentially deadly disease in nearly three decades. Her daughter, who had a rash, high fever and a cough, was hospitalized for four nights and needed intravenous fluids and oxygen.

“I thought: ‘I’m in America. I thought I’m in a safe place and my kids will never get sick in that disease,’ ” said Salah, 26, who has lived in Minnesota for more than a decade. Growing up in Somalia, she’d had measles as a child. A sister died of the disease at age 3.

Salah no longer believes that the MMR vaccine triggers autism, a discredited theory that spread rapidly through the local Somali community, fanned by meetings organized by anti-vaccine groups. The advocates repeatedly invited Andrew Wakefield, the founder of the modern anti-vaccine movement, to talk to worried parents.

Immunization rates plummeted and, last month, the first cases of measles appeared. Soon, there was a full-blown outbreak, one of the starkest consequences of an intensifying anti-vaccine movement in the United States and around the world that has gained traction in part by targeting specific communities.

“It’s remarkable to come in and talk to a population that’s vulnerable and marginalized and who doesn’t necessarily have the capacity for advocacy for themselves, and to take advantage of that,” said Siman Nuurali, a Somali American clinician who coordinates the care of medically complex patients at Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota. “It’s abhorrent.”

Although extensive research has disproved any relationship between vaccines and autism, the fear has become entrenched in the community. “I don’t know if we will be able to dig out on our own,” Nuurali said.

Anti-vaccine advocates defend their position and their role, saying they merely provided information to parents.

“The Somalis had decided themselves that they were particularly concerned,” Wakefield said last week. “I was responding to that.”

He maintained that he bears no fault for what is now happening within the community: “I don’t feel responsible at all.”

MMR vaccination rates among U.S.-born children of Somali descent used to be higher than among other children in Minnesota. But the rates plummeted from 92 percent in 2004 to 42 percent in 2014, state health department data shows, well below the 92-94 percent threshold needed to protect a community against measles.

Wakefield, a British activist who now lives in Texas, visited Minneapolis at least three times in 2010 and 2011 to meet privately with Somali parents of autistic children, according to local anti-vaccine advocates. Wakefield’s prominence stems from a 1998 study he authored, which claimed to show a link between the vaccine and autism. The study was later identified as fraudulent and was retracted by the medical journal that published it, and his medical license was revoked.

The current outbreak was identified in early April. As of Thursday, there were 41 cases, all but two occurring in people who were not vaccinated, and all but one in children 10 and younger. Nearly all have been from the Somali American community in Hennepin County. A fourth of the patients have been hospitalized. Because of the dangerously low vaccination rates and the disease’s extreme infectiousness, more cases are expected in the weeks ahead.

Measles, which remains endemic in many parts of the world, was eliminated in the United States at the start of this century. It reappeared several years ago as more people — many wealthier, more educated and white — began refusing to vaccinate their children or delaying those shots.

(…)

The roots of the outbreak there date to 2008, when parents raised concerns that their children were disproportionately affected by autism spectrum disorder. A limited survey by the state health department the following year found an unexpectedly high number of Somali children in a preschool autism program. But a University of Minnesota study found that Somali children were about as likely as white children to be identified with autism, although they were more likely to have intellectual disabilities.

Around that time, health-care providers began receiving reports of parents refusing the MMR vaccine.

As parents sought to learn more about the disorder, they came across websites of anti-vaccine groups. And activists from those groups started showing up at community health meetings and distributing pamphlets, recalled Lynn Bahta, a longtime state health department nurse who has worked with Somali nurses to counter MMR vaccine resistance within the community.

At one 2011 gathering featuring Wakefield, Bahta recalled, an armed guard barred her, other public health officials and reporters from attending.

Fear of autism runs so deep in the Somali community that parents whose children have recently come down with measles insist that measles preferable to risking autism. One father, who did not want his family identified to protect their privacy, sat helplessly by his daughter’s bed at Children’s Minnesota hospital last week as she struggled to breathe during coughing fits.

Anti-vaccination activists in general and Andrew Wakefield in particular have been a nuisance for some time now. Even though Wakefield’s now infamous study has been proven to be fraudulent and discredited, these people continue to push their well-debunked propaganda nationwide. The result has been increased cases of disease such as Measles, Mumps, and Whopping Cough in various parts of the country even after long periods in which all three childhood diseases, and others, had been completely or virtually eradicated in the United States and elsewhere thanks to successful vaccination and public health campaigns. In this case, though, Wakefield’s conduct in particular isn’t just a nuisance, it is odious, dangerous, and fairly close to something that probably ought to be considered criminal behavior. Notwithstanding the fact that his work has been thoroughly discredited, Wakefield and his supporters actively reached out to the Somali community and used the combined factors of the fears of a vulnerable immigrant community in a country that they are still struggling to get used to, the fears of parents for the safety of their children, and the relative isolation of the Somali community due to language and cultural barriers to spread his discredited propaganda and create unwarranted fear among Somali parents that their children would become autistic if they were vaccinated from childhood illnesses. At the very least, it strikes me that this ought to lead to some kind of civil liability on the part of the activists and people such as Wakefield who ought to know what they are doing is more likely to harm the children of these immigrants than to help them. Based on their actions, however, it would seem apparent that they don’t care what happens to the children at all.

At the very least, reports such as this indicate that public health officials in the state need to do a better job at reaching out to this community and others regarding the truth about vaccines and the lack of any scientific basis for the idea that there is any link at all between autism and vaccinations. For now, though, the damage is done and it’s going to be difficult to root out the impact that Wakefield and his propaganda efforts has had in the state in general and in the Somali community in particular. While that process is underway, though, I would hope that someone is looking into the possibility of some kind of legal sanctions against Wakefield and his supporters for this. As I said, at the very least they have operated in what can only be described as a callous and manipulative manner toward a vulnerable population that in many ways lacked the means to double check what they were being told by people they thought they could rely upon. It’s true that the parents bear some responsibility too, of course, but when you consider the fact that the parents were largely motivated by fear and their concern for their children, that responsibility is arguably mitigated by the more egregious conduct of the anti-vaccination crowd. These people already have enough blood on their hands, they obviously don’t care about more of it.

FILED UNDER: Health, Health Care
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Lynn says:

    “targeting Somali immigrants” — exactly. The predators jumped in to prey on parental fears.

    There are a number of activists within the Somali community working to address concerns. In addition, the school where I volunteer with ESL classes has discussed the issue at some length with the higher-level students.

    Rep. Ilhan Omar, DFL-Minneapolis, proposed a bill to “set aside $500,000 for a two-year grant program, where communities at risk of or in the middle of an outbreak could seek help to get more people immunized against disease.” The bill was turned down.

    http://www.startribune.com/minnesota-house-blocks-vote-on-grants-for-measles-outbreak/420937883/

  2. Facebones says:

    These anti-vaxxers are awful people. They stoke the worst fears in parents and people die as a result. It’s a perfect storm of the anti-government right and the all-natural Whole Foods left.

  3. CSK says:

    Isn’t Trump an anti-vaccine proponent?

  4. Gromitt Gunn says:

    Surely this has to fall within the definition of child endangerment or reckless endangerment or something similar.

    Targeting this community in this way under the guise of helping…. Wakefield and these activists are engaged in the moral equivalent of providing blankets ridden with smallpox, or recruiting men into the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiments.

  5. ptfe says:

    What kind of visa is Andrew Wakefield living in the US on? If anyone needs to be deported, it’s that piece of sh!t.

  6. RangerDave says:

    Seems like the best solution would be a bunch of lawsuits against anti-vax organizations and advocates brought by the parents who fell for their crap and ended up with sick kids.

  7. Stormy Dragon says:

    @RangerDave:

    The problem is this would be like me going “Hey RangerDave, you ought to rob a bank next week!” and then if you try it, suing me for giving you the idea.

    It’s hard to come up with a theory of liability for Wakefield that doesn’t place more liability on the parents themselves.

  8. Grumpy Realist says:

    Sorry, but First Amendment don’tcherknow….

    If I were Empress, my rule would be: vaccine or getting exposed to the actual disease long enough until you catch it. Your pick.

    (Am especially annoyed in this case because measles is highly contagious and because I had an uncle who ended up brain-damaged at the age of six due to catching measles. But hey, if you like having to institutionalize your kids…)

  9. teve tory says:
  10. Liberal Capitalist says:

    You can’t put a price on ignorance.

    You can, however, count bodies.

  11. KM says:

    @Stormy Dragon :

    It’s hard to come up with a theory of liability for Wakefield that doesn’t place more liability on the parents themselves.

    Not getting children vaxed for false fears of autism is stating to the world you’d rather your child get hideously sick, become disabled or even DIE rather then suffer through the non-fatal condition known as autism. That rather than then deal with having an autistic child, you’ll take the chance on having a deaf or blind one, maybe one in a casket. These selfish nimrods are saying an illness ravaged and maimed child is better then an autistic one.

    They deserve all liability that can be heaped on them. Wakefield did it for the money, they do it for zealotry, fear or bigotry towards those with a disease we don’t fully understand yet.

  12. Franklin says:

    @KM:

    then suffer through the non-fatal condition known as autism

    I mean I’m in basic agreement with all of you on the topic, but you’re making it sound like autism is no big deal. It depends on the level. A friend’s niece has severe autism, and to be honest I might actually prefer to be dead. But that’s all hypothetical in this case, since we don’t have any real evidence of vaccines causing autism.

    That said, this is all risk weighing. Vaccines cause real side effects. It’s only the fact that those side effects are either mild or rare compared to the potential effects of getting AND SPREADING those diseases that make the vaccines worthwhile. To be honest, I’ve seen very few such comparisons and I would think well-publicized comparisons might be helpful in swaying some (not all) anti-vaxxers.

  13. Guarneri says:

    “It reappeared several years ago as more people — many wealthier, more educated and white — began refusing to vaccinate their children or delaying those shots.”

    Next thing you know they’ll want to save us from giant Slurpees.

  14. KM says:

    @Franklin:

    like autism is no big deal.

    Not my intention, I assure you. I have little cousins with autism as well, all up and down the spectrum. It makes my blood boil to think there’s people out there in the world who look at them, witness their struggles and then turn to their (as far as they know) untouched children and say “yeah, gonna risk your life so I don’t have to put up with that”. It’s eminently selfish and disrespectful to those with autism, the same way it would be if the “link” had been made with Down Syndrome. These are beautiful people who don’t deserve to be made into objects of fear by anti-vaxxers. We invented these vaccines for a reason – these diseases were stealing our children, ruining our health and killing where they went. The ignorant claim that these were “just childhood diseases” (and thus NBD) completely misses the point that they are childhood diseases precisely because there a vulnerable population. Measles was fatal far too often and left tragedies like blindness and deafness in its wake. To go up to a new parent and tell them that they should risk this, all to avoid having an autistic child, is absolutely galling.

    Autism is no easy street to navigate but its a damn sight better then some of the options not vaccinating can bring. Everything causes side-effects Franklin – if their risk assessment is low % possible maimed or dead child > 0% autism, you’re not going to persuade them with facts. Autism is being held up as such a boogie man that worst case scenario people would rather visit a grave then visit a group home.

  15. Just 'nutha ig'nint cracker says:

    @Guarneri: You’re just like school on Saturday:
    No Class.

  16. MarkedMan says:

    The anti-vaxxers minimize the consequences of getting the measles. They think that in the whole almost no child suffers serious side effects. In and of itself that’s not true but there’s another thing that they don’t consider at all: pregnant women who get the measles can end up with children with severe birth defects.

    The University I went to is also the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, and it was created in the 1960’s and ’70’s to accommodate 3 times the current need of the population. This was because there was measles outbreak in the late fifties/early sixties (there was no vaccine then) that led to the ‘Rubella Bump’, a bolus of children with many different kinds of birth defects, deafness included. The administrations of Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford and to some extent Carter spent two decades understanding the impact of this bump and building the infrastructure to deal with it, and made further plans as to what to do with any excess infrastructure once the bump had passed.

    I don’t know which is more laughable today: the idea that a Republican led government would feel they have any duty to deal with a national chalalenge like this, or the idea that they would be competent enough to carry it out.

  17. grumpy realist says:

    @MarkedMan: One of the side effects of rubella on women can be an inability to carry to term….my mother had a bad case of German measles as a child and as a result suffered quite a few miscarriages and stillbirths. I’m the only one who made it (50-50 chance of not making it when I was born.)

    But hey, if you don’t want to have grandkids, go ahead, let your daughter catch German measles….

  18. Franklin says:

    @KM:

    Everything causes side-effects Franklin – if their risk assessment is low % possible maimed or dead child > 0% autism, you’re not going to persuade them with facts.

    Precisely why I said “some (not all)”. Same with lots of subjects where people dig in – some people will always be immune to the facts.

    But imagine if a graph like the following was done better, so that you could see a real effect in reduced deaths or cases of deafness caused by measles, etc. after a vaccine was widely available: https://childhealthsafety.files.wordpress.com/2009/01/us-deaths-1900-1965.gif (honestly, this graph shows absolutely nothing to me as it currently stands, mostly due to the scaling, but even the diphtheria vaccine doesn’t clearly change the momentum).

    Better yet, make the graph compare it to the tiny number of side effects of the vaccine itself. Now put effort into distributing the evidence. It will go further than calling anti-vaxxers stupid (even if they are).

  19. al-Ameda says:

    Question: How ignorant and fearful are a growing number of people these days?

    Anti-vaccine advocates defend their position and their role, saying they merely provided information to parents.
    “The Somalis had decided themselves that they were particularly concerned,” Wakefield said last week. “I was responding to that.”
    He maintained that he bears no fault for what is now happening within the community: “I don’t feel responsible at all.”

    Answer: See above.

    You got Trump aligned with a disparate group of anti-vaxxers that include folks like Jenny McCarthy and Robert Di Niro …

    America in decline

  20. Hal_10000 says:

    I always thought the best illustration of the vaccine debate was made be Penn and Teller.

    I wrote about this in the context of my little boy’s bout with pneumonia and how his being vaccinated made the doctors’ job way easier.

    Most doctors today have never seen measles. Or mumps. Or rubella. Or polio. Or anything else we routinely vaccinate for. Thus, they haven’t built up the experience to recognize these conditions. Orac, the writer of the Respectful Insolence blog, told me of a sick child who had Hib. It was only recognized because an older doctor had seen it before.

    When I told the doctors Hal had been vaccinated, their faces filled with relief. Because it meant that they didn’t have to think about a vast and unfamiliar terrain of diseases that are mostly eradicated. It wasn’t impossible that he would have a disease he was vaccinated against — vaccines aren’t 100%. But it was far less likely. They could narrow their focus on a much smaller array of possibilities.

    Wakefield is a criminal. The anti-vaxxers are criminal enablers, targeting a vulnerable community with their lies and distorted beliefs. It’s beyond disgusting.

  21. Argon says:

    Orac has a great take-down of the situation in his blog.

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