As of Thursday afternoon, there were 41 documented cases of measles in Minnesota, 40 of which were in children, 39 of which were in people who had not been vaccinated, and 34 of which were in people of Somali descent. More cases are expected in the weeks ahead. It’s no coincidence that anti-vaxxers have targeted Minnesota’s Somali community for the past 15 years with their propaganda, convincing them to cut vaccination rates from 92 percent in 2004 to 42 percent in 2014.
The worst part is that the anti-vaxxers don’t care about the outbreak, and even some Somali families are so convinced by the conspiracy theory that they’d rather watch their children endure measles if it lowers the chance they’ll be autistic. It won’t.
According a new report in the Washington Post, anti-vaxxers descended on the Somali community in 2008 after parents raised concerns that their families were being disproportionately impacted by autism. Even though a University of Minnesota study dispelled the myth that autism rates were any higher among Somali children, the paranoia stuck, and anti-vaxxer thinking took hold.
The community repeatedly invited anti-vaxxer propagandists to visit. Indeed, even Andrew Wakefield, who was responsible for the original widely-debunked study suggesting a connection between vaccines and autism, visited the community several times. “The Somalis had decided themselves that they were particularly concerned. I was responding to that,” he told the Post last week. “I don’t feel responsible at all.”
The panic about the supposed threat of vaccines grew so much that many in the Somali community rejected what doctors were trying to tell them about the actual threat of the diseases vaccines protect against. Lynn Bahta, a state health department nurse who has worked to counter the propaganda, told the Post that at one of Wakefield’s appearances, an armed guard blocked her and other public health officials from attending. At an anti-vaxxer meeting at a Somali-owned restaurant this past Sunday, two pediatricians were booed and shouted down for trying to convince the crowd to resist the new outbreak by getting vaccinated as soon as possible. Receiving the vaccine within 72 hours of exposure can still prevent the disease from taking hold.
A similar measles outbreak occurred in California a few years ago thanks to families similarly refusing to vaccinate their children. An outbreak at Disneyland in early 2015 led to at least 70 cases of the measles. But families were so enamored with the unsupported belief they were protecting their kids from autism that many held “measles parties” to infect their unvaccinated kids. In July of that year, a young woman in Washington died from measles-related complications, making her the first confirmed measles death in the U.S. in over a decade. A year later, measles was again found in California schools in an area with one of the lowest vaccination rates in the state.
Not helping the situation is the fact that President Trump also believes vaccines cause autism. Robert F. Kennedy Jr, a prominent purveyor of anti-vaxxer myths, has been in talks with the administration about heading up a committee on “vaccine safety and scientific integrity.” Trump has promoted the myth many times over the years, and he recently claimed autism rates are rising, which isn’t true.
Last month, the White House commemorated World Autism Day because Trump’s “long-time friend” Bob Wright had convinced him to do so. Wright founded the organization Autism Speaks, and both he and the organization have a history of promoting anti-vaxxer myths.
But as the outbreak spreads in Minnesota’s Somali community, one of the largest in the country, anti-vaxxer groups are still telling families to opt out of vaccines, which will only fuel the spread. As more children suffer, some families are coming around to the protections vaccines provide, but the situation seems primed to get worse before it gets better.