Letter: Response to “Measles show health disparities”

by Kris Ehresmann

The Minnesota Daily Editorial Board’s piece “Measles show health disparities” (June 14) states, “While it may be easy to blame anti-vaxxers for this outbreak, the infrastructural deficits in healthcare access cannot be ignored.”

It is true that there are real and significant health disparities in Minnesota. These disparities leave communities vulnerable to influence from outside groups. At the same time, we cannot minimize that Minnesota’s current measles outbreak is directly connected to the actions of anti-vaccine organizations. As stated in the editorial, the Somali American community had high rates of MMR vaccination before these groups targeted the community with misinformation. Similarly, this community continues to have high rates for other immunizations.

This is not a question of who to blame, but a recognition that this outbreak and declining immunization rates are the result of an organized tactic of anti-vaccine organizations. They are not just targeting parents in the Somali American community — they are targeting all parents. There are unvaccinated children of all races and socioeconomic groups in Minnesota due to the work of these organizations. These children are vulnerable to dangerous and preventable diseases, as this outbreak has shown.

Immunizations are uniquely accessible. Along with receiving them at your regular doctor’s office, they are widely available through community clinics, local health departments, schools and other venues. Cost does not have to be a barrier because the Minnesota Vaccines for Children program provides vaccines to clinics throughout the state so families who do not have insurance, or whose insurance does not cover the cost of vaccines, can get low-cost immunizations. While there is always room for improvement, immunizations are a model for how we can increase access within the healthcare system.

Ultimately, our ability to respond to low immunization rates in the Somali American community will require changes in how public health and healthcare collaborates with the community. Patients need longer visit times to ask questions, access to medical interpreters must be improved and we must increase understanding by healthcare professionals of how to work with other cultures. It’s critical that we build trust among public health, healthcare and the community. Much of this is already happening.

Since 2013, the Minnesota Department of Health has been working to increase our focus on health equity in all our programs. We have hired Somali staff to do direct outreach with the community about immunizations to counteract the misinformation spread by anti-vaccine groups. This effort started before the outbreak and will continue after it is over as we work to increase immunization rates and reduce health disparities in the Somali American community and all communities in Minnesota.

Editor’s Note: This letter has been lightly edited for style

Kris Ehresmann

Director, Infectious Disease

Minnesota Department of Health