Measles Outbreak in Minnesota: Victims of Disease and Propaganda

May 15th, 2017 by CHHS RAs

By CHHS RA Lauren Morowit

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) declared that measles was eliminated in the United States in 2000 due to widespread vaccination.  However, this accomplishment has been undermined by three major outbreaks since the announcement including: the Amish community outbreak in Ohio in 2014, the Disneyland outbreak in California in 2015, and now the Somali community outbreak in Minnesota in 2017.

What—or who—is to blame for these three outbreaks? The culprit is the American anti-vaccination movement.  This group’s propaganda efforts in conjunction with the false notion that the MMR vaccine is linked to autism has caused hundreds of people to suffer from a disease that had been almost entirely eradicated.

The CDC describes measles as a highly contagious virus that lives in the nose and throat of an infected person; it can be spread to others through coughing and sneezing.  The rate of transmission of this disease is remarkably high and puts those who are not immune at risk of being infected.  If one person has measles, 90% of the people close to that person who are not immune will also become infected.

Measles can be prevented with the MMR vaccine – which also protects against mumps and rubella.  The MMR vaccine has a 97% effectiveness rate against measles after receiving the two recommended doses.

Despite the MMR vaccine’s remarkable effectiveness, one community is currently suffering from a measles outbreak. There are 48 confirmed cases of measles in Hennepin, Ramsey, and Crow Wing Counties in Minnesota.  The vast majority of these cases involve unvaccinated Somali-American children.  The Somali-American community does not have any unique cultural positions on vaccination, but this community was targeted by anti-vaccination rhetoric and fearmongering in recent years.

In 2008, community concerns arose in Minneapolis about an unexpectedly high number of Somali children in an autism pre-school program. This higher prevalence of autism in the Somali community eventually spurred a federally funded University of Minnesota project that found that Somali children were slightly more likely than non-Somali children to be diagnosed on the autism spectrum. Additionally, Somali children with autism spectrum disorder were more likely to also have intellectual disability than children with autism spectrum disorder in all other racial and ethnic groups in Minneapolis.

Some anti-vaccination advocates exploited the anxiety of the Somali-American people after this study was conducted. Before 2008, the vaccination rate for measles was above 90% among the Somali-American community in Minnesota.  Now, it is at 41%.  This sharp decline in vaccination was precipitated by leading anti-vaxxers, J.B. Handley and Andrew Wakefield.  J.B. Handley wrote an open letter to “Courageous Somali Parents” in 2008 instructing them not to trust a CDC “puppet” like the Minnesota Department of Health.  Andrew Wakefield, the former physician known for his discredited anti-vaccine research, spread fears about the MMR vaccine through public lectures and outreach campaigns in Minnesota in recent years.

Despite research published showing no link between the MMR vaccine and autism, the anti-vaccination narrative has permeated communities across the country by encouraging distrust in both government and modern medicine.  Unfortunately, the anti-vaccination movement capitalized on the vulnerabilities of the Somali community in Minnesota, and dozens of children are now grappling with the effects of measles.

It is important to recognize that outbreaks often spark xenophobia and discrimination in America when bodies of color are stigmatized by a disease. These outbreaks will continue to occur if people fall victim to conspiracy theories and choose not to vaccinate their children.  Hopefully, these hard lessons learned from outbreaks like this one will serve as a final catalyst for debunking the anti-vaccination movement and advancing the overall well-being of communities across the country.

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