A belief among Somali tribesmen imported into Minnesota that the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine causes autism has led to an outbreak of measles in that state—which now threatens to spread to whites, according to the Center for Diseases Control (CDC).
According to a report in the Chicago Tribune, the measles outbreak in Minnesota has seen 34 confirmed cases in the past two weeks alone, and they are “just the latest example of a tight-knit community in which the highly contagious disease has gained a foothold in the U.S. in recent years.”
Nearly everyone infected is unvaccinated, and all but a few are of Somali descent. So far, 11 children have been hospitalized.
The source of the outbreak is unknown, said Kris Ehresmann, infectious disease director with the state Department of Health. But since measles was declared eliminated in the United States in 2000, outbreaks in the U.S. are typically caused when international travelers are infected overseas and bring the virus home.
Nine other states have seen measles cases so far this year, but none has reported an outbreak of Minnesota’s magnitude, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Somali children are getting sick because the community has a low rate of immunization for measles, mumps, and rubella, Ehresmann said. Unvaccinated children from other communities are also at risk.
According to the Health Department, 42 percent of Minnesota-born Somali toddlers had received the MMR vaccine as of 2017 — but the community’s immunization rate hasn’t always been that low.
In 2004, 92 percent of Somali toddlers had the MMR vaccine. The community’s immunization rate fell sharply to 70 percent in 2008 amid a perception that autism was becoming more common among Somali children.
A University of Minnesota study that examined 7- to 9-year-olds in Minneapolis in 2010 found no statistical difference between the rate of autism among Somali children and white children, Ehresmann said.
Minnesota law requires that a child be vaccinated before enrolling in child care, early education, or school. But it also allows exemptions for medical reasons or “conscientiously held beliefs.”
A 2014 study by the American Board of Family Medicine found 35 percent of Somali parents surveyed believed the measles vaccine causes autism, compared with 8 percent of non-Somalis.
Other communities with low vaccination rates have also been affected by measles in recent years. Nearly 20 people in the Orthodox Jewish community in Los Angeles were sickened by measles in December. Fifty-eight were sickened in 2013 when the measles swept through Orthodox Jewish communities in New York.