What can an advanced nation, with high-level medical care, say to the Somali American community of Minnesota, where an outbreak of measles, highly infectious and potentially deadly, is racing ahead because many people failed to get their children vaccinated, fearing a link to autism? This is what must be said: The fears are wrong, vaccinations save lives and this community must overcome distrust in order to overcome disease. There is no excuse for ignorance, not in Minnesota or anywhere else.
As Post reporter Lena H. Sun described in an article May 5, the Somali community in Minnesota is the largest in the United States. In 2008, parents raised concerns that their children were disproportionately receiving treatment for autism spectrum disorder. A University of Minnesota study in 2010 found that Somali children were about as likely as white children to be identified with autism, but Somali children with autism were more likely to have intellectual disabilities. Although extensive research has disproved the fears of a link between vaccination and autism, Sun reported that fear of vaccination became entrenched in the Somali community. Parents kept their children from inoculation with the highly effective measles, mumps and rubella vaccine. In 2004, 92 percent of Somali children in Minnesota were vaccinated, but by 2014 the rate plummeted to 42 percent, well below the 92 to 94 percent needed to protect a group.
Fears of vaccination deepened in Minnesota after Somali parents talked to Andrew Wakefield, the anti-vaccine activist who privately visited at least three times in 2010 and 2011. Wakefield’s 1998 study purporting to show a link between vaccines and autism was later identified as fraudulent. It was retracted by the medical journal that published it, and his medical license was revoked. Wakefield said he was invited to talk to the Somali community and is not at fault for what is happening. “I don’t feel responsible at all,” he told The Post.
The measles virus, which spreads through the air when a person coughs or sneezes, recently got a foothold among the unvaccinated children in Minnesota. According to the state health department, as of May 9 there were 50 cases, of whom 45 were unvaccinated. All but three are children. More cases are expected. Measles was once a scourge that infected 3 million to 4 million Americans annually, of whom 400 to 500 died. Because of the vaccine, the disease was almost completely eradicated in the United States by 2000. However, travelers have sometimes brought it from abroad; Somalia continues to have hundreds of suspected cases.
The vaccine is safe; two doses are about 97 percent effective at preventing measles. But the existence of groups of unvaccinated children, like those in Minnesota, are an outbreak waiting to happen. This is entirely unnecessary. The events in the Somali American community are not caused by a lack of medical technology or know-how, but rather by the rise of ignorance and fear. They provide a lesson to be spread far and wide: Do not give in to mindless irrationality about vaccines. They can save lives.