hand with vaccine bottle on blue filter
May 16, 2017

Minnesota measles outbreak blamed on anti-vaxxers

A recent measles outbreak that has caused dozens of Somali-Americans living in Minnesota to contract the highly contagious virus has been traced to an anti-vaccination campaign linking the potentially life-saving immunizations to autism, state health officials said on Monday.

According to Live Science, the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) revealed Friday that it had confirmed 54 cases of measles in the state. All but three of those cases involved children under the age of 18, and the majority of them had not been vaccinated, they revealed in a report.

Since then, four new cases had been confirmed, including two involving unvaccinated children in Le Sueur County, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune noted. That brings the number affected to 58 – two more than the total number of cases reported between 1997 and 2016, MDH said.

So what is the cause of the current outbreak? Kristen Ehresmann, director of Infectious Disease Epidemiology, Prevention and Control at MDH, told Live Science that the spread of the ailment can be traced back to local media reports, published in 2008, which found that Somali-American children in the Minnesota area were more likely to require special education services.

Those reports caught the attention of the anti-vaccination movement, a group claiming that the potentially life-saving immunizations have been linked to autism, Ehresmann said. In the wake of those reports, anti-vaxxers began to spread propaganda regarding the purported link between the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine and the neurodevelopmental disorder.

‘Dramatic decline’ in vaccinations among Somali-Americans

The purported link between vaccines and autism can be traced back to a now-discredited 1998 study, published in The Lancet, and subsequent papers from the same author suggesting that the MMR vaccine was unsafe. The original study was later retracted by The Lancet, with editor-in-chief Richard Horton calling it “utterly false” and saying that the journal had been “deceived.”

Nonetheless, the claims of a possible link have persisted, causing some parents to choose not to have their children vaccinated (and leaving them potentially vulnerable to diseases like measles). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has even set up a web page specifically designed to present the scientific evidence showing that immunizations do not cause autism.

“Studies have shown that there is no link between receiving vaccines and developing [autism spectrum disorders, or ASD],” the CDC said, citing both a 2011 Institute of Medicine study and their own 2013 report that found no link between vaccines and the neurodevelopmental disorder. Furthermore, the agency said, research has shown that there is no link between the ingredients of vaccines and autism – including the mercury-based preservative thimerosal, which was removed or reduced to trace amounts in nearly all childhood vaccines between 1999 and 2001.

Despite the evidence, anti-vaxxers “have been very aggressive in taking advantage of concerns about autism” in Minnesota's Somali-American community, Ehresmann told Live Science. Since the 2008 reports and the subsequent launch of the anti-immunization campaign in the area, there has been a “dramatic decline” in vaccinations among those Somali-Americans, she added.

“The big message,” Le Sueur County public health director Cindy Shaughnessy told the Star-Tribune, “is to vaccinate, just can’t say that enough.” She and her colleagues are working hard to convince the parents of unvaccinated children to have them immunized in the hopes of stopping the current measles outbreak – the largest to hit the state in nearly two decades – in its tracks, the newspaper added.

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