Despite the massive measles outbreak in the Minnesota Somali community, antivaxers double down

I’ve written several posts about a tragic phenomenon in Minnesota. Specifically, there’s been a major measles outbreak among the Somali immigrant community in the Minneapolis area, the largest group of Somali immigrants in the country. Actually, this outbreak is not the first outbreak among this community. There was another, smaller one in 2012. Both involved primarily children in the Somali immigrant community who were not vaccinated. The last recorded case of measles in Minnesota was on July 13 in a white child who was also unvaccinated, but officials need to wait at least 42 days (two full incubation periods of measles) before they will be able to declare this year’s outbreak over. The toll thus far has been 79 measles cases, with more than 8,200 people exposed in day-care ­clinics, schools, and hospitals and 22 people hospitalized, many with high fever, breathing difficulties and dehydration.

Why have there been two major outbreaks among this specific community in five years, the latest of which produced more cases of measles in one concentrated area than there had been the year before in the entire US? The answer is simple. As I’ve described in pretty much all of my posts on the topic, the percentage of children of Somali immigrants vaccinated against measles with the MMR vaccine has fallen from around 90% in 2007, which was comparable to the rate among non-Somali children, to a dismal 42% now, far below the level needed for herd immunity. But why has this particular community become so hesitant to vaccinate their children with MMR?

Unfortunately, the answer to that one is both simple and complex. It’s simple in that, beginning nearly ten years ago, the antivaccine pseudoscience of Andrew Wakefield took hold in the Somali immigrant community. Why and how that happened, however, is not as simple. In brief, back in 2008, there were news stories about a “cluster” of autism cases in the Somali community. Ultimately, scientific studies found that Somali immigrants suffer autism at no higher a prevalence than American natives, but that was years later. In the meantime, while there was uncertainty, there was an opening for antivaxers and their misinformation.

American antivaxers (like those at Age of Autism) immediately concluded what they always conclude whenever they see an epidemiological anomaly like this involving autism, namely that it had to be the evil vaccines. Antivaccine groups, both local and national, descended upon Minneapolis to promote their misinformation. Even Andrew Wakefield himself traveled there at least speak to the Somali community. As a result of privileged antivaxers swooping in like the Great White Saviors that they envision themselves as, the the view that the MMR vaccine causes autism took root there. At first, it was only distrust of the MMR vaccine, but more recently more generalized antivaccine views appear to be taking hold as well. Worse, even as this year’s measles outbreak raged, antivaxers still showed up to tell the Somalis, in essence, to be strong and not to listen to all those public health officials trying to vaccinate their children and thus stop the outbreak. Mark Blaxill, for instance, spoke in Minneapolis just under four months ago.

And they’re still at it. The Washington Post just published an article by Lena Sun entitled Despite measles outbreak, anti-vaccine activists in Minnesota refuse to back down. It’s a scary read. Far from being chastened by the suffering they wrought on the vulnerable Somali community, who have already been unfairly demonized by racists for having “brought disease” to the US (never mind that they vaccinated their children with MMR at levels slightly higher than the native-born as recently as 2007) and even by Donald Trump when he was a candidate for supposedly being a hotbed of Islamic terrorism when they are not, antivaxers are energized:

Minnesota’s worst measles outbreak in decades has un­expectedly energized anti-vaccine forces, who have stepped up their work in recent months to challenge efforts by public health officials and clinicians to prevent the spread of the highly infectious disease.

In Facebook group discussions, local activists have asked about holding “measles parties” to expose unvaccinated children to others infected with the virus so they can contract the disease and acquire immunity. Health officials say they are aware of the message posts but haven’t seen evidence that such parties are taking place.

Not content with having poisoned the minds of the Somali immigrants against the MMR vaccine and sown distrust of public health officials frantically trying to contain the outbreak, antivaxers are actually actively undermining the efforts of those officials and even trying to persuade Somalis that “measles parties” (among the worst ideas ever) are a good idea to obtain “natural immunity” for their children. Worse still, Wakefield’s associates, namely the crew riding the VAXXED bus across the country to spread antivaccine misinformation (and, if they succeed, measles outbreaks) are scheduled to arrive in Minnesota to tell the Somali community once again to be strong and not listen to the public health officials trying to prevent outbreaks:

The activists also are using social media to urge families who do not want to immunize their children or who believe their children have been harmed by vaccines to meet in Minneapolis this week with associates of Andrew Wakefield, the founder of the modern anti-vaccine movement. The associates have been touring the United States and abroad with the former doctor’s movie, “Vaxxed: From Cover-up to Catastrophe,” which repeats the debunked theory that vaccines cause autism and that scientists, pediatricians and the public health system are part of an elaborate conspiracy. A recent fundraiser at the clinic of a suburban Minneapolis pediatrician who supports “alternative vaccine schedules” benefited a second film that also will feature Wakefield, whose research has been retracted for falsehoods.

Fortunately, some headway is being made to combat this misinformation. Key to that has been engaging the Somali-American imams, who have been urging families to get their children vaccinated with MMR.

In the article, there were expressions of surprise that such a large measles outbreak, one that was directly traceable to “outreach” efforts by antivaccine groups dating back to 2008, has actually emboldened antivaccine groups rather than led them to lay low. I must admit that I was somewhat surprised by this, but not as surprised as many. With the rise of Donald Trump, who himself has a long, sordid history of antivaccine statements blaming vaccines (which he has called “monster shots” and portrayed as needles and syringes big enough for a horse), antivaccine activists have in general become emboldened. There has been a political shift in antivaccine groups. Contrary to the stereotype of antivaxers as hippy dippy, granola-crunching left wingers, today’s antivaxer is more likely to be a Tea Party activist, suspicious of government, who views school vaccine mandates with every bit as much suspicion as he or she would view a new tax or Obamacare.

Indeed, I’ve discussed this politicization of school vaccine mandates before, using Texas as an example where antivaccine views have fused with libertarian small government politics to produce a toxic brew that opposes any effort to tighten up school vaccine requirements. They’re even willing to betray their supposed commitment to “openness, by scuttling bills that would have required the publication of school-level vaccine exemption rates, so that parents can know if they are sending their children to a school where high exemption rates mean that outbreaks are more likely there. We’ve seen the very same thing in my state, where conservative politicians have done their best to undermine the efforts of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services to bring down Michigan’s shamefully high personal exemption rate. Basically, this new breed of antivaxers appears to be doing its best to make measles great again. School vaccine mandates used to be an issue with broad bipartisan support. I fear that is changing.

In Minnesota, the “white saviors” are still at it:

Earlier this summer, health officials and advocates received word that white women were passing out fliers and talking to families in some high-rise apartment buildings in predominantly Somali neighborhoods. The women reportedly claimed that the measles outbreak had been created by the Health Department to persuade Somali parents to vaccinate, said Lynn Bahta, a longtime state Health Department nurse who works to counter vaccine hesitancy.

Health officials never determined who the women were. But the reports reflect the tendency of anti-vaccine activists to “dig in,” Bahta said. “The more pressure on them, the more they dig in.”

Naturally, Minnesota antivaccine groups, like the Vaccine Safety Council of Minnesota and Minnesota Vaccine Freedom Coalition deny they had anything to do with the women spreading fliers, and maybe they didn’t. They’re not the only game in town—unfortunately. Meanwhile, though, on the Facebook page of the Minnesota Vaccine Freedom Coalition, local antivaxers are very unhappy at the Washington Post’s article:

One commenter named Crystal Allen, for instance, says in response:

It’s funny how they try to make this “outbreak” look like a big deal. According to their own numbers, 8,200 people were exposed, only 79 got it, nobody died and all fully recovered and all this occurred across several counties containing several hundred thousand people! That’s nothing! It’s just not that bad. With proper nutrition and rest, the measles is a nasty cold with a rash. It’s not fun but it’s also not a crisis.

Yes, because to antivaxers, “nobody died” means the measles is harmless. Of course, the main reason that, of the estimated 8,200 people exposed, “only” 79 caught the measles is because, thankfully, most of the population is still vaccinated. It was mostly the unvaccinated and undervaccinated who got measles. Measles is one of the most contagious diseases there is; if not for high vaccination rates one would have expected close to all of those people who hadn’t had the measles before to have contracted the disease. Also notice how conveniently Ms. Allen neglects to mention the 22 who were hospitalized. That’s more than one in four cases.who had high fever, breathing difficulties, and/or dehydration serious enough to require hospitalization. That’s hardly a “harmless” disease. Yet, antivaxers always try to falsely portray the measles as not serious.

Unfortunately, given the current climate and how emboldened antivaxers have become, it is not difficult to predict more outbreaks of measles. The outbreak of measles among Somalis in Minnesota might have finally burned itself out, but there will be more, either among the Somalis, who still have low vaccine uptake, or elsewhere where antivaccine beliefs have taken hold. It’s only a matter of time. In the face of an unequivocal demonstration of the harm their efforts have caused, antivaxers don’t admit that they might be wrong. They double down.