In 2016, a total of 70 cases of measles were reported across the United States. Less than halfway through 2017, 73 cases of the infectious disease have been confirmed in Minnesota alone. There's a vaccine for the potentially fatal illness, but a small subset of parents have ignored doctors' advice and refused to vaccinate their children. This isn't just a dangerous practice for their own kids — it also puts the lives of classmates and neighbors at risk.
Minnesota's spike in measles cases is due to the fear-mongering tactics of anti-vaccine activists and they specifically targeted the Somali American community. Although the majority of the state's measles cases are un-vaccinated Somali American pre-schoolers, the epidemic has begun to spread to other communities through the Minneapolis public school system. According to state health officials, the outbreak isn't slowing down and Ramadan gatherings throughout the month of June could result in even more cases.
State health officials say anti-vaccine activists raised fear in the Somali American community by repeatedly inviting disgraced doctor Andrew Wakefield to speak to parents in 2010 and 2011 about the "dangers" of vaccines. Wakefield wrote a now-retracted paper that posited there's a link between the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine (MMR) and autism. His medical license has since been revoked, and further studies have failed to find a link between the measles vaccine and autism.
However, some Somali American parents already believed their children were at an increased risk of autism, so anti-vaxxers targeted them by coming to community health meetings and handing out pamphlets about the "dangers" of vaccines. Their tactic worked: In 2004, 92% of Somali American children got the MMR vaccination. By 2014, that number dropped to just 42%.
Minnesota's outbreak began in early April and 44 cases had been reported by May 5. Nevertheless, anti-vaccine activists attended a May 17 community health meeting with pamphlets that declared "some children suffer permanent brain damage from the vaccine, and some die from it."
Meanwhile, 20 children have been hospitalized for measles since the outbreak began. Minnesota health officials are currently working with faith leaders, including imams and mosque executive directors, to encourage parents in the community to vaccinate their children.
Their efforts have made a positive impact: Until very recently, the Minnesota health department administered an average of 30 MMR vaccines to Somali children per week. By the beginning of May, that number had jumped to 500.