Anti-vaxxers duped Minnesota’s Somali community and gave them the largest measles outbreak in decades

“I thought: ‘I’m in America. I thought I’m in a safe place and my kids will never get sick in that disease.” That’s what Suaado Salah told the Washington Post after her 3-year-old boy and 18-month-old girl came down with measles in Minnesota’s largest outbreak of the disease in three decades.

Salah and other members of her community were fooled by anti-vaccine activists who organized local meetings designed to disseminate the claim that vaccines are linked to autism, whipping up fear among parents as a result. According to the Post, the activists even invited in the father of the anti-vaccine movement, Andrew Wakefield, who was the author of a study in the British Medical Journal 15 years ago that claimed 8 children developed “regressive autism” after getting a combination of vaccines to prevent mumps and rubella. The study was later retracted and Wakefield’s medical license was revoked in May of 2011 as a result of “serious professional misconduct.”

The anti-vaxxer propaganda campaign worked. According to the Post’s report, vaccination rates in the community “plummeted,” and soon there was a full-blown measles outbreak.

“The Somalis had decided themselves that they were particularly concerned,” Wakefield told the Post last week. “I was responding to that.” Wakefield added that he doesn’t bear any blame for the outbreak. “I don’t feel responsible at all,” he said.

From the Washington Post:

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. …

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.

Anti-vaccine groups gained entry to the local Somali community when parents researching autism came across their websites back in 2008. Soon after, healthcare providers started seeing vaccination rates drop. Speaking to the Post, state health department nurse Lynn Bahta said she watched as vaccine denialists distributed pamphlets at community health meetings. During a meeting hosted by the group in 2011, Bahta claims she and other public health officials were barred from entering by an armed guard.

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.

The 23-month-old was on an IV for fluids and had repeatedly pulled out the oxygen tube in her nose. Her older brother, almost 4, endured a milder bout. Neither had received the MMR vaccine.

The father and his wife, along with Salah, no longer harbor any doubts about vaccines. But fears still persist in the community. On the Sunday night before the WaPo piece was published, anti-vaxxers hosted another meeting that drew in about 90 mostly-Somali attendees. “When you hear people from the state public health department saying there is no risk, that [vaccines] are safe, this is the sort of thing that should cause you to be skeptical,” anti-vaccine Mark Blaxill reportedly said to the audience.

When two pediatricians in the audience stepped up to the microphone to rebuke the group’s claims, they were shouted down and booed by the audience.

You can read WaPo’s full report here.

Sky Palma

Before launching DeadState back in 2012, Sky Palma has been blogging about politics, social issues and religion for over a decade. He lives in Los Angeles and also enjoys Brazilian jiu jitsu, chess, music and art.