MINNEAPOLIS (AP) - Health officials struggling to contain a measles outbreak that’s hit hard in Minneapolis’ large Somali community are running into resistance from parents who fear the vaccine could give their children autism.
Fourteen confirmed measles cases have been reported in Minnesota since February. Half have been in Somali children, six of whom were not vaccinated and one who was not old enough for shots. State officials have linked all but one of the cases to an unvaccinated Somali infant who returned from a trip to Kenya in February. The state had reported zero or one case of measles a year for most of the past decade.
Amid the outbreak, a now-discredited British researcher who claimed there was a link between vaccines and autism has been meeting with local Somalis. Some worry Andrew Wakefield is stoking vaccination fears, but organizers say the meetings were merely a chance for parents to ask him questions.
“Unfortunately a lot of the media thinks he’s saying ‘Don’t get vaccinated.’ That’s far from the truth. He’s basically encouraging people to get vaccinated but do your homework and know the risks,” said Wayne Rohde, a co-founder of the Vaccine Safety Council of Minnesota, which says parents should have other options for immunizing their children.
Measles has been all but eradicated in the United States, but accounts for about 200,000 annual deaths worldwide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. None of those infected in Minnesota have died, though eight have required hospitalization.
The infections come as autism concerns have surged over an apparent rise in cases in Minnesota’s Somali community, the largest in the U.S. Officials, though, haven’t determined if that’s really happening.
The Minnesota Department of Public Health found in 2009 that young Somali children in Minneapolis public schools were over-represented in autism programs, but cautioned that alone didn’t prove a higher rate of autism. The CDC and National Institutes of Health are working with the advocacy group Autism Speaks on a more systematic study.
Critics argue new efforts are moving too slowly. The lack of answers has frustrated parents of autistic children like Idil Abdull, co-founder of the Somali American Autism Foundation. Abdull, who lives in suburban Savage, said public officials need to be more active with research, resources and services.
Meanwhile, Somali parents hungry for information have met with Wakefield during three recent visits facilitated by local autism activists.
Wakefield’s work fueled a backlash against childhood vaccinations after he published a 1998 paper in the medical journal Lancet linking autism to the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine in a dozen children. But other medical researchers and the Sunday Times of London called Wakefield’s work into question. The Lancet retracted his paper last year, the U.K.’s General Medical Council ordered that his name be erased from the country’s medical register, and the British Medical Journal in January denounced him as a fraud.
Wakefield does not have a listed telephone number and has not responded to emails sent by The Associated Press or messages left with his publisher. But he issued a statement in January standing by his work and calling for more research to determine if environmental triggers, including vaccines, cause autism.
“Any medical professional, government official or journalist who states that the case is closed on whether vaccines cause autism is jumping to conclusions without the research to back it up,” he said.
Numerous studies addressing autism and vaccines, or the mercury-based preservative thimerosal, which was formerly used to preserve vaccines, have so far found no link.
About 100 parents attended Wakefield’s first Minneapolis appearance in December. About 15 met with him during his most recent visit, on March 23. Rohde said he and others were asked to arrange the meeting by Somali parents who wanted the chance to question Wakefield privately.
Several parents said they were wary of the MMR vaccine because measles is usually temporary while autism is permanent, said Rohde, who lives in suburban Woodbury and has a 13-year-old with autism. Rohde said he doesn’t claim the vaccine caused his son’s autism by itself but believes it was a factor.