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Anti-Vax Activism Behind Huge Measles Outbreak

Photograph by Getty Images

Anti-vaxxers in and around Minneapolis-St. Paul targeted a very vulnerable group with bad information based on a retracted study and the discredited doctor who made up the data for publication. The result? A measles outbreak last month among the tight-knit and economically vulnerable Somali community.

It's the largest measles outbreak in Minnesota in the last 30 years: 44 cases by mid-April. All but two of the cases were in people who had not been vaccinated, the vast majority of them under the age of 5. And a quarter of those cases required hospital stays. Nearly all of the people who contracted the highly contagious and very preventable disease were part of a community of Somali immigrants living in Hennepin County, home to Minneapolis and most of its suburbs.

“The outbreak started among Somali Minnesotans who have a low vaccination rate for MMR,” Doug Schultz, a spokesman for the Minnesota Department of Health, to the New York Times. He was referring to the shot for measles, mumps and rubella.

Why the low rate? The Washington Post reported last month how the Somali community had been targeted by anti-vaccinations activists, who told parents that the MMR shots were causing the unusually high rates of autism among these recent immigrants. Among the misinformation was that the Somalis had higher rates of autism, which is untrue. The Time and Post reproted that their autism rates were about the same as that of the white population around the state. In other words, entirely normal.

But the fear of autism has become entrenched among the parents of the community, only exacerbated by Andrew Wakefield, a founder of the anti-vaccination movement, who has been to Minneapolis to meet with the parents, according to the Post, whom he told he does not feel any sense of responsibility for the recent outbreak.

'I thought: ‘I’m in America. I thought I’m in a safe place and my kids will never get sick in that disease.’

While Minnesota gets the dubious award for having the most cases of measles reported so far this year in the U.S., last year, they're not alone. Since January until mid-April, 61 people from 10 states (California, Florida, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Utah and Washington) came down with measles. Last year, there were 70 total cases from 16 states, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported.

Meanwhile, a young mother whose two kids came down with measles told the Post she never expected her children to get measles in the U.S., even though she hadn't vaccinated them against it due to the (unfounded but nonetheless persistent) fear it would cause autism. Her 18-month-old had to be hospitalized for four nights and hooked up for 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,’” Suaado Salah, 26, told the Post. Though she has lived in Minnesota for more than a decade, she grew up in Somalia, where she had measles as a child. Her sister had even died of the disease at age 3, the same age as her son who also contracted it from his baby sister.

While Salah said she no longer believes vaccines cause autism, she had been one of many convinced by anti-vaccination activists that she would put her children at risk if she had allowed them to get the routine, safe and effective immunizations. Instead, they got sick.

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