Personal Health

Anti-Vax Propaganda Helps Measles—Once Eradicated—Spread Across the Twin Cities

Health officials expect the number of diagnoses to rise.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock / Lightspring

The anti-vaxxer misinformation campaign has led to yet another outbreak of a preventable disease. Minnesota’s Department of Health has announced that 44 people in the state have been diagnosed with measles, a disease once eradicated in the United States. Forty-two of the cases are in children, most of them Somali-Americans who were never vaccinated. According to numerous sources, the outbreak is the result of a sustained anti-vaccination campaign that convinced an immigrant community to be wary of life-saving science.

The largest Somali-American population in the country resides in Minnesota, mostly in the twin cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. Those who arrived as refugees beginning in the late 1990s left behind a country where measles still kills 10,000 children annually. Upon arrival, many of the families made vaccinating their children a priority, driving vaccination rates up to 90 percent by 2004, according to Wired. In the years that followed, an increasing number of Somali children were diagnosed with severe autism, motivating their parents to search for reasons why.

Studies led by the CDC, NIH and University of Minnesota found that diagnosis rates for Somali kids were on par with those of white Minnesotans, but the disease seemed to hit Somali kids harder. As Wired notes, “only about a third of non-Somali kids with autism were also diagnosed with intellectual disabilities—such as delayed speech, or difficulty understanding abstract concepts and social rules. For Somali autistics, it was 100 percent.” The disparity made parents in the community, who were desperate for answers, open to alternate theories. That led them to the internet, and a vast sea of anti-vaccination propaganda.

Among those who descended upon the town was Andrew Wakefield, a doctor who was stripped of his license after his study that launched the anti-vaccination movement was debunked, its findings proved fraudulent. According to the Washington Post, which spoke with anti-vaxxers in the community, Wakefield “visited Minneapolis at least three times in 2010 and 2011 to meet privately with Somali parents of autistic children.” According to state department nurse Lynn Bahta, the tactics anti-vaccination advocates use to spread their gospel sometimes crossed traditional boundaries. She told the Post she attempted to access one 2011 anti-vaccination gathering where Wakefield was a speaker, but “an armed guard barred her, other public health officials and reporters from attending.”

When questioned about how those visits may have contributed to the current outbreak, Wakefield denies any responsibility. “The Somalis had decided themselves that they were particularly concerned,” he reportedly told the Post. “I was responding to that. I don’t feel responsible at all.”

The spread of anti-vaccination theories was followed by a precipitous drop in the number of children being vaccinated. In recent years, the rate has fallen to just 42 percent. That's far below the 90 to 95 percent vaccination rate necessary to keep the disease, which is highly contagious, under control. Health care providers told the Post that as a result of “dangerously low vaccination rates and the disease’s extreme infectiousness, more cases are expected in the weeks ahead.”

Once a fringe movement, anti-vaccination ideas have slowly moved into the mainstream thanks to several high-profile proponents. The most famous is the actress Jenny McCarthy, who has done a tremendous amount to help spread the long-discredited theory. McCarthy’s nonprofit, Generation Rescue, received a $10,000 donation from the Trump foundation in 2010. Donald Trump has stubbornly linked autism with vaccinations for years in interviews and on social media. “Healthy young child goes to doctor, gets pumped with massive shot of many vaccines, doesn't feel good and changes - AUTISM. Many such cases!” Trump tweeted in 2014. Back in January, Trump announced that outspoken anti-vaxxer Robert F. Kennedy Jr. would “chair a commission on vaccine safety and scientific integrity.’’

In the age of alternative facts, scientists and researchers know that defeating the spread of measles and other preventable diseases requires more than just information. The battle is as much about PR as it is truth.

“The answer used to be education—the more educated you were on the issue the more likely you were to get vaccinated,” Michael Osterholm, who heads the University of Minnesota Center for Infectious Disease Research, lamented to Wired. “The challenge is for scientists to be humble and acknowledge that in this day and age, facts will not win the day.”

Kali Holloway is a senior writer and the associate editor of media and culture at AlterNet.

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