Here’s why Somali-American children in one U.S. state are suffering from a measles outbreak

Amira Hassan, of Burnsville, Minnesota, plays in the waiting room at the specialty clinic at Children's Minnesota in Minneapolis.
Image: AP/REX/Shutterstock

In case you needed further proof that vaccines are vital and important, consider what’s happening now in Minnesota.

An outbreak of measles has sickened more than 40 children since mid-April, primarily within the state’s large Somali-American community. Anti-vaccination activists have helped spur unfounded fears in Somali parents that the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine causes autism in children.

Doctors and state health professionals said they are working to contain the virus, which causes fever, watery eyes, and a red skin rash and can lead to hospitalization or death. But experts expect measles cases to continue rising in coming weeks, the Associated Press reported.

Health officials declared measles eliminated in the United States in 2000. In recent years, however, outbreaks of the virus have cropped up in tight-knit communities across the country, including Orthodox Jewish communities in Los Angeles and New York and Ohios Amish population. Suburbs across Southern California have also grappled with a spike in measles cases.

Amira Hassan plays in the waiting room at Children’s Minnesota while her dad, Mohamud Hassan, fills out paperwork.

Image: AP/REX/Shutterstock

Among the 40-plus Minnesota children with measles, nearly everyone is unvaccinated, and all but a few are of Somali descent, AP reported. At least a dozen children have been hospitalized so far, and the source of the outbreak is still unknown.

A growing yet highly unsubstantiated concern that autism is becoming more common among Somali children has contributed to the community’s plummeting rates of immunizations for measles, mumps, and rubella.

In 2004, about 92 percent of Minnesota-born Somali toddlers received the vaccine, yet four years later, only 70 percent of toddlers were vaccinated, according to the Minnesota Department of Health. As of 2017, only 42 percent of Somali toddlers in the state received the inoculation.

Anab Gulaid, a University of Minnesota researcher, noted that autism is often diagnosed in children around the same age as they receive their measles vaccine, which is why some fears persist.

“It’s an emotional issue for people,” she told the AP.

Vaccines do not cause autism, according to numerous studies that have debunked the perceived links between vaccination and the developmental disorder. Medical experts say there is no debate about the safety of these vaccines.

While it’s true that autism prevalence has increased in the U.S. in the last two decades, that doesn’t necessarily mean autism is growing worse. A 2015 study found individuals who would have previously been diagnosed with other intellectual disabilities are now being correctly diagnosed with autism.

And in Minnesota, there’s no statistical difference between the rate of autism among 7- to 9-year-old Somalis and their young white peers, a 2010 study by the University of Minnesota found.

State health officials are urging all Minnesota children 12 months and older who have not received the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine to get it now. Adults who never received the vaccine and who never had the measles should also be vaccinated immediately.

“This is about unvaccinated children, not specific communities,” Ed Ehlinger, Minnesota’s health commissioner, said in a statement.

He noted that people of all backgrounds in the state have chosen not to protect themselves or their children, a decision that’s often based on “good intentions and inaccurate information.”

The commissioner said it’s the “responsibility of all of us who care about the health of Minnesota children to make sure people have accurate information and take action to protect their families and their communities.”

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