Thanks for the measles yet again, Andy: Antivax vultures swoop in to spread misinformation among the Minnesota Somali immigrant community

Earlier this week, I took note of an ongoing measles outbreak in Minnesota. This outbreak affects the large Somali immigrant community there, and the reason for the outbreak is simple. Over the last decade, uptake of the MMR vaccine has plunged dramatically in the American-born children of the Somali community, from 92% to 42%, far below the level necessary for herd immunity. The reason for the drop is that antivaccine fear mongering has taken hold in the community, thanks to American antivaxers who targeted the community and Andrew Wakefield himself, who’s visited the community at least twice (once during a previous measles outbreak in 2011) to promote his discredited idea that MMR causes autism. What opened up the community to antivaccine ideas was an unexplained autism cluster in the community that was widely reported on in 2008 but has subsequently been found not to have been real, with American-born Somali children not having a higher prevalence of autism than the American children in the same area.

When last I discussed the outbreak, the number of children stricken with measles had reached 32. Now, four days later, the number is up to 41 and still climbing as it spreads beyond Hennepin County:

State officials reported seven new cases of measles Thursday, bringing the case count to 41 in an outbreak that has now reached its first adult and spread beyond the state’s Somali community.

Health officials also said two of the 41 patients had been vaccinated for the highly-contagious disease.

As the outbreak grows, it has also spread beyond Hennepin County. There are now two cases in Ramsey County and one in Crow Wing County. A case in Stearns County that was announced last week has since been ruled out as measles, health officials said.

State health officials expect there to be more cases and repeated their call for unvaccinated Minnesotans to get shots.

Basically, the measles outbreak appears to be gaining steam, and who knows how far it will spread and when it will finally burn itself out? It’s all because antivaxers saw an opportunity to “help” (in their eyes) parents from a Third World Country with little or no knowledge of autism. Unfortunately, their “help” consisted of taking the discredited pseudoscience of a British fraud named Andrew Wakefield and convincing large swaths of the Somali community that there really was good reason to worry that the MMR vaccine causes autism. The message took hold, along with many of the conspiracy theories that go along with it. The good news is that most Somalis in Minnesota don’t appear to be antivaccine, just anti-MMR. The bad news is that other antivaccine ideas are spreading, with more parents buying into antivaccine tropes, such as “too many too soon” and the idea that children are “overvaccinated.”

And right in the middle of this rapidly growing measles outbreak, who should appear to make things worse, but more antivaccine loons, led by Mark Blaxill? That’s exactly what happened on Sunday:

A national speaker who believes there are links between vaccines and autism told a group of Somali-American parents Sunday night that they should choose whether to vaccinate their children by weighing risks and benefits. He also said the government has lied in its previous vaccine research and that the danger of measles is overstated.

About 90 people met at Safari Restaurant in Minneapolis to hear Mark Blaxill, who is on the executive leadership team of the nonprofit Health Choice, present information on measles outbreaks, autism rates and what he said were the fraudulent results of a 2004 study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on the link between autism and vaccines, a theory that health officials have debunked.

“It should be the right of every parent and family to make their own decisions,” said Blaxill.

We’ve encountered Mark Blaxill on many occasions before over the years, for instance when he wrote a book with the now-deceased Dan Olmsted in which he laid down an amazing quantity of pseudoscience about polio, pesticides, and the poli vaccine. More recently, he appeared in Andrew Wakefield and Del Bigtree’s antivaccine propaganda opus VAXXED.

I was somewhat intrigued. No, I wasn’t intrigued by any of the claims and arguments that Blaxill made (although I will briefly touch on them). They’re nothing that I haven’t heard before many, many times. Rather, I was interested why Blaxill’s affiliation was not listed as Safeminds, an antivaccine group he’d been with for a very long time, although he’s still apparently involved with the antivaccine Canary Party. I had never heard of the group he’s with now, Health Choice, but its team includes a rogues’ gallery of antivaccine “luminaries.” It even includes Ginger Taylor! It also looks as though the group has a broader focus than just antivaccine activism:

Health Choice is a non-profit organization focusing on awareness of health choices, education on nutrition, healing, and prevention of chronic illnesses for children and adults. Our group was formed in response to a study published in Academic Pediatrics that represented 43% of children (32 million) in the US suffers from a chronic health condition. It is our belief that these rates will continue to increase if parents are not aware of the unhealthy choices in their lifestyle such as industrial processed foods, side effects of vaccine choices, and other environmental and lifestyle factors. We want to help Americans understand how to have a healthy lifestyle, return to a state of wellness and promote sound choices for their children.

Make no mistake, Health Choice is clearly antivaccine, but it appears to go beyond nust vaccines. It’s also based in Minnetonka, MN, which is outside of St. Paul and right where an antivaccine group would need to be to influence the Somalis, saying things like:

Blaxill — who says that he’s not anti-vaccine — also explained Minnesota law and how parents can opt out of vaccinations, providing forms and access to a notary public for parents. Several nonprofits advocating parental choice in vaccinations were present, including the Minnesota Vaccine Safety Council, Health Choice and National Health Freedom Coalition.

Ah, yes. The old “I’m not antivaccine” gambit, so beloved of, well, antivaccine loons everywhere. Of course Blaxill is antivaccine. He was associated with Safeminds and Age of Autism, two very antivaccine organizations. He spreads misinformation that falsely claims that the MMR causes autism. Basically, he walks the antivaccine walk and talks the antivaccine talk. I’ve already discussed the Minnesota Vaccine Safety Council before, particularly how it’s co-opted words like “freedom” and “rights” to conflate them with the desire of antivaccine parents to refuse vaccinations for their children.

Funny how he uses a favorite antivaccine trope about “bullying”:

“The vaccination schedule for children in this country has exploded since 1986,” Blaxill said. “And we simply do not know all of the possible negative side effects of these vaccines as a collective group of immunizations.”

And Blaxill said every citizen should know they do not have to feel pressure to vaccinate if they do not agree with the government’s immunization programs.

“I have seen bullying by government agencies across the country, especially targeting new immigrants, to make them feel they have no other choice but to go along with an immunization schedule for children that, in my opinion, is too many and too soon for many of these kids,” Blaxill said.

Worse, Blaxill’s message is finding fertile ground among the Somalis:

Attendees Sunday night had varied opinions about vaccines and autism, despite the fact that any link has been thoroughly discredited by the scientific community.

Measles can be dangerous, said parent Ikram Mohamed, but the illness only lasts a short time.

In contrast, “Autism is not a curable disease,” said Mohamed, as several Somali-American mothers in the front row cheered her on.

Mohamed, a mother of five who said she had delayed vaccination in four of her children due to fears about autism, said doctors need to inform parents that they can delay or opt out of vaccines.

Here’s a news report on Blaxill’s talk:

Truly, Mark Blaxill, Andrew Wakefield, and the rest of the antivaccine activists preying upon this community are despicable and deluded, promoting pseudoscience that is harming the Somali community. The result has been this:

Since the outbreak was first detected three weeks ago, health investigators have contacted about 2,500 people who were exposed to known cases, including at child care centers, health care settings and household exposures. People who were exposed and were not vaccinated are being asked to stay home from work, school, child care and other public gatherings for three weeks.

The public health control effort has involved 70 state workers at a cost of $207,000, the department said. Some county and private health care organizations have also been involved in exposure follow-up efforts.

Measles is no longer naturally occurring in the United States. State health officials believe, the current outbreak was most likely caused by an infected person who had caught measles in a foreign country.

There’s little doubt that the outbreak will get worse before it gets better, and it’s the fault of American antivaxers, including Andrew Wakefield. Thanks, Andy and Mark. Thanks yet again for the measles. You bastards.

ADDENDUM: This morning, The Washington Post featured a story on the Minnesota measles outbreak, Anti-vaccine activists spark a state’s worst measles outbreak in decades. It shows the pernicious effects of Wakefield’s antivaccine propaganda:

The young mother started getting advice early on from friends in the close-knit Somali immigrant community here. Don’t let your children get the vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella — it causes autism, they said.

Suaado Salah listened. And this spring, her 3-year-old boy and 18-month-old girl contracted measles in Minnesota’s largest outbreak of the highly infectious and potentially deadly disease in nearly three decades. Her daughter, who had a rash, high fever and a cough, was hospitalized for four nights and needed intravenous fluids and oxygen.

“I thought: ‘I’m in America. I thought I’m in a safe place and my kids will never get sick in that disease,’ ” said Salah, 26, who has lived in Minnesota for more than a decade. Growing up in Somalia, she’d had measles as a child. A sister died of the disease at age 3.

This is an aspect I hadn’t thought of: In Somalia, measles is a deadlier disease than it is in the US because of the conditions and malnutrition there. Somali immigrants know this, and mistakenly felt safer in the US. Of course, the reason so few children get the measles these days is because of mass vaccination with MMR to the point where there is effective herd immunity. I can’t help but wonder whether antivaxers took advantage of that, telling them they were safe. I know their message was that measles is not a threat to them in Minnesota, but autism is. Then they peddle the lie that vaccines cause autism.

Meanwhile, Wakefield, the scumbag that he is, is washing his hands of responsibility:

Anti-vaccine advocates defend their position and their role, saying they merely provided information to parents.

“The Somalis had decided themselves that they were particularly concerned,” Wakefield said last week. “I was responding to that.”

He maintained that he bears no fault for what is now happening within the community: “I don’t feel responsible at all.”

He’s definitely responsible for this reaction to pediatricians speaking up after Blaxill’s talk last Sunday:

Two pediatricians in the audience stepped up to a microphone to denounce the claims.

“I am very concerned, especially in the midst of a measles outbreak, to have folks come into a community impacted by this disease and start talking about links between MMR and autism,” said Andrew Kiragu, interim chief of pediatrics at Hennepin Medical Center in Minneapolis. “This is a travesty.”

He and the other doctors were interrupted by boos and yelling.

“For God’s sake, I want to know if vaccines are safe,” Sahra Osman shouted. She has a nearly adult son who received an autism diagnosis when he was 3. “My people are suffering! We’re not ignorant. I read a lot. I know a lot. I educate myself. . . . You don’t know what you are talking about.”

No, Andy. You are responsible. So is Mark Blaxill. So are the entire crew at the Age of Autism and every Minnesota antivaccine group who’s promoted Wakefield’s failed idea to a vulnerable population. If any children die, the blood will be on your hands.