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After years of anti-vaccination outreach, the immunization rate for Somali children in Minnesota is shockingly low.
Minnesota is in the midst of its second measles outbreak in seven years. As of Monday, there were 34 cases—32 of which are in Hennepin County, where Minneapolis is located. Twenty-nine of those cases are Somali Minnesotan children, and just a single one of those kids is known to have received the MMR immunization.
In response local health officials have been hosting events with community leaders to work out how best to deal with this dangerous situation. But unfortunately, those officials are fighting an uphill battle.
This outbreak goes hand in hand with the spread of misinformation within the Somali community. And, even as the number of kids with measles grows, fringe voices from anti-vaccine groups are attempting to shore up that community’s fear that vaccines are linked in some way to autism spectrum disorders.
On Sunday, speakers representing several of those groups led a meeting at a Minneapolis restaurant to inform Somali-American families about what they believe are the dangers associated with vaccines, as well as to teach parents about possible exemptions to vaccination rules. Perhaps the most prominent of those speakers is Mark Blaxill, the editor of a website called Health Choice. While study after study has confirmed that no connection exists between autism and the MMR shot, Blaxill claimed at the meeting that the associated science is rife with fraud.
"It is a fact that vaccines can cause autism," said Blaxill at the event, according to Minnesota Public Radio. "That's not the controversy. The controversy is how many cases of autism are caused by vaccines."
Blaxill claims he isn’t anti-vaccination but rather he is critical of government mandates believes families need more information to make the right decision. “It should be the right of every parent and family to make their own decisions,” said Blaxill said at the meeting, according to the Star Tribune.
And, parents within the community are clearly concerned. The Star Tribune reported that one parent at the meeting, Ikram Mohamed, pointed out that in her view, measles is dangerous, but it’s only a temporary problem, while on the other hand “autism is not a curable disease.” This comment received cheering from other Somali-American mothers in the audience. Mohammed said she has delayed vaccination in four of her five children.
Sunday’s meeting isn’t the first time anti-vaccination groups have seized upon the Somali community’s autism concerns even as unvaccinated children contract measles. In 2011, another outbreak of the disease was raging and none other than Andrew Wakefield—lead author of the now retracted Lancet study that first claimed to link autism to childhood shots—made an appearance in Minneapolis decrying government vaccination programs.
These fears weren’t always a problem within Minnesota’s Somali community. According to health officials, Somali-Americans in the state once had higher vaccination rates than the general population. But, after a slew of news in 2008 on the prevalence of autism among U.S.-born children of Somali descent, groups that crusade against immunizations homed in on the community as a community ripe for the convincing.
And, convince they did. After years of anti-vaccination outreach, the immunization rate for Somali children in Minnesota is shockingly low. As of 2014, 2-year-olds in the Somali-Minnesotan community receive vaccinations at a rate of only 42 percent—that’s compared with 88 percent among non-Somali children.
On Sunday, however, concerned parents weren’t the only group in the audience. A group of medical professionals was also in attendance.
One attendee, Dr. Michael Osterholm, the head of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota expressed his frustration at the event to MPR:
"This is a very serious situation," Osterholm said. "And when I watch what I saw tonight, and I see these people preying on a community that wants answers, I find this just abysmal. It's the worst of human behavior."
Quinn Libson is a Staff Correspondent at Government Executive’s Route Fifty based in Washington, D.C.