Fear of vaccines led to measles outbreak among Somalis, health officials say

Most of the 34 confirmed measles cases are in Somali children.

Olivia Johnson

State health officials say a misplaced fear of vaccinations’ link to autism caused a measles outbreak in Minneapolis’ Somali community.

Autism is more prevalent among Somalis than other ethnic groups, but local leaders say the outbreak — which had infected 34 as of Monday — is changing people’s minds about vaccination.

Kris Ehresmann, Minnesota Department of Health’s director of infectious diseases, said the outbreak prompted MDH to work with childcare centers, schools and communities where the virus could have a higher transmission rate.

MDH designated 40 staff members to focus specifically on preventing the infection from spreading more, she said. The department identified the first measles cases on April 11 and most of the cases are in kids who attend childcare, she said.

Symptoms of measles include coughing, fevers, runny noses and watery eyes that occur for a few days before a rash develops. Infected people are contagious four days before and four days after developing the rash.

“It’s very infectious,” said Ehresmann. “It’s spread via the respiratory route, so, by breathing. You could go into a room an hour and a half after someone with measles was there and you could get measles from them.”

Mohamud Noor, director of the Confederation of Somali Community in Minnesota, said measles outbreaks aren’t new to the community.

In 1990, Minnesota had a measles outbreak of almost 500, with three deaths before the infection was said to be eradicated from the U.S. in 2000, Ehresmann said. Since then, cases detected in the country are imported from other countries, she said.

Noor said this one is worse because fewer parents vaccinated their children with the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine.

“Many people are worried,” Noor said. “Many families are asking for what they need to do and what they need to be aware of.”

Ehresmann said the number of cases being detected is not slowing and won’t for a couple of weeks, even though MDH has followed up with over 1,500 people who may have been exposed to the virus.

“It’s completely driven by unvaccinated children,” she said. “What’s happened here is we have a very large, susceptible population that had measles introduced to it, and it’s basically spreading like wildfire.”

Ehresmann said most of the 34 cases are in Somali children and as of Friday, a Hispanic child and a Liberian child had contracted the virus.

Noor said government programs have taken the most action in preventing the virus from spreading, while community members are encouraging friends and family to get the vaccine.

“I think the time for the [healthcare] providers to invest is now,” he said. “It’s their duty. It’s their role. They should be able to connect with the community and address this in a different perspective.”

Noor said families that have not vaccinated their children are scared and avoiding childcare centers or being discouraged to bring their children to different places if they are not vaccinated.

“This isn’t really a situation where people don’t have access to care,” Ehresmann said. “They’re just choosing not to be vaccinated because of misinformation that they’ve gotten about the vaccine.”

Noor said more school-aged children are vaccinated than younger children because parents have had more time to think about the pros and cons of vaccination.

“This is a learning process, but it’s a process that we have to take seriously,” he said. “Measles can become extremely dangerous.”

Lynn Bahta, MDH’s immunization clinical consultant, said she’s worked with many Somali parents who are hesitant to vaccinate their children with MMR, which is typically suggested for children between 12 and 15 months. Some parents believe there is mercury or aluminum in MMR, she said.

Bahta said some Somali parents believe MMR vaccines cause autism.

Bahta said parents spread the misinformation by word of mouth and made decisions to not vaccinate without being fully educated.

“We now are at the point where we have a community that’s not protected,” she said.