Hennepin County, a community largely populated by Somali families, is in the midst of a measles outbreak stemming from misinformation circulated by anti-vaxxer Andrew Wakefield.
The Washington Post reports that as of Thursday, there were 41 cases of measles in the area—all but one in children who are ten and younger, and all but two of those cases occurred in people who were unvaccinated. The Minnesota Star Tribune reports that this is the largest outbreak since 1990, and that all unvaccinated people who have been exposed to the disease have been asked to stay home from “work, school, child care and other public gathering places for three weeks.” More than 70 public health care workers have been working to control the outbreak, costing the state $207,000 so far.
The high rate of families resisting vaccination for measles supposedly stems from a misapprehension that rates of autism were higher in American-born Somali children, though a study from the University of Minnesota later revealed the numbers are at the same level as with non-Somali children. But the misinformation had already done damage, and famous anti-vaxxer Andrew Wakefield arrived on the scene:
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. Wakefield’s prominence stems from a 1998 study he authored, which claimed to show a link between the vaccine and autism. The study was later identified as fraudulent and was retracted by the medical journal that published it, and his medical license was revoked.
Somali children born in the US once had higher rates of MMR vaccination in the area than in other communities, but they’ve fallen from 92 percent in 2004 to 42 percent in 2014, which is far below the threshold needed to protect people from an outbreak of the disease. Wakefield has denied any responsibility for the pervasive fears in the community, telling the Post, “The Somalis had decided themselves that they were particularly concerned. I was responding to that.”
NPR reports that over the weekend, anti-vax groups organized yet another meeting, which some public health officials attended in an attempt to bring better information about the safety of vaccinations, but they were mostly shouted down. However, attendees applauded anti-vaccine activist Mark Blaxill after he said, “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.”
The interim chief of pediatrics at Hennepin Medical Center in Minneapolis, Andrew Kiragu, also made an appearance, but was met with boos and shouting.
“I am very concerned, especially in the midst of a measles outbreak, to have folks come into a community impacted by this disease and start talking about links between MMR and autism,” said Kiragu to the skeptical crowd, adding, “This is a travesty.”