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Minnesota Has More Measles Cases Than the Entire Country Did Last Year

It's the result of anti-vaccine activists targeting a Somali American community.

by Susan Rinkunas
Jun 1 2017, 8:18pm

The Washington Post / Getty Images

The Minnesota department of health announced that there have been 73 confirmed cases of measles in the state this year; a number that surpasses the 70 cases seen across the entire United States in 2016. Measles is a highly infectious disease which can cause life-threatening pneumonia and swelling of the brain known as encephalitis and, yes, there is a vaccine for it, but in recent years, some people have chosen to ignore the advice of doctors and not get their kids vaccinated, which puts their children's and neighbors' lives at risk.

The majority of the cases are in unvaccinated preschool children in the Somali American community but the measles has begun to spread to other communities through the Minneapolis public school system. Health officials say the Minnesota outbreak shows no signs of slowing and are worried that gatherings during the holy month of Ramadan, which started on Friday, will fan the infectious flames both within Minnesota and in other areas with large Somali populations, like Columbus, Ohio.

Why is this community experiencing an outbreak? Health officials blame anti-vaccine activists who repeatedly invited the disgraced doctor Andrew Wakefield to talk to parents between 2010 and 2011. Wakefield was the author of a now-retracted paper suggesting a link between the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine and autism. Wakefield's medical license was revoked after the paper was discovered to be fraudulent, and large-scale studies have failed to find a link between the measles vaccine and autism. Still, some Somali American families thought their children had disproportionately higher rates of autism spectrum disorder and anti-vaxx activists started showing up at community health meetings and handing out pamphlets.

The impact of this fearmongering was staggering: MMR vaccination rates among Somali American children fell from 92 percent in 2004 to 42 percent in 2014; during that time, the vaccination rate among all other children increased slightly to 89 percent. Measles were declared eliminated in the US back in 2000, but unvaccinated people who travel to other countries can and do bring the measles back to their communities and as more people refuse to vaccinate their kids or delay their shots, we get outbreaks. This one in Minnesota started in early April and there were 44 cases as of May 5, but that didn't stop activists from attending a May 17 community meeting about the MMR vaccine and handing out printouts which said "some children suffer permanent brain damage from the vaccine, and some die from it."

Twenty kids have been hospitalized with an average stay of five days but one child was there for 17 days. Now, health officials are working with faith leaders, including imams and mosque executive directors, to spread the word that parents should vaccinate their kids and kids who have measles symptoms should stay home. The good news is that getting an MMR dose within 72 hours of exposure to measles can prevent the disease and health officials have been encouraged to see a surge in vaccinations: the usual weekly number of MMR vaccines given each week statewide is 2,700 and officials say as many as 9,700 doses a week have been doled out since the start of the outbreak. The health department typically administered 30 MMR vaccines to Somali kids each week; that number hit 500 at the end of April and early May.

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