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Minnesota Somalis, let’s vaccinate our kids again

Abdi Warfa

The measles outbreak among Minnesota’s Somali community continues to grow, accounting for 47 out of 54 reported cases as of May 12. There is a simple explanation for why these numbers are that high. According to state health officials, the number of Somali parents opting to vaccinate their kids against measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) plummeted from a high of 92 percent in 2004 to 42 percent in 2014. That is a steep decline!

Why the sudden change? Somali parents did not change their feelings about MMR out of the blue. Rather, the community fell prey to consistent anti-vaccine campaign that claims a purported link between MMR and autism. The science on this is very clear: There is no link between vaccines and autism. But why isn’t my community more receptive to this scientific consensus?

In my view, the scientific community and our health workers failed to allay the fears of a community witnessing increased cases of autism and thirsty for information on why that is. We can’t fault parents for the basic human instinct of wanting to protect their kids. Ironically, anecdotal evidence suggests most of those forgoing vaccinations are families with autistic children or those who know those families.

A false narrative

The anti-vaxxers succeeded convincing many through a false narrative that suggests perhaps vaccines cause autism, despite not pointing to a single case in which a vaccine caused autism. Rather, most anti-vaccine messages that resonates with this community point to the number of injuries caused by vaccines or the possible side effects of MMR as a reason for delaying or forgoing vaccinations altogether.

This, therefore, is about failure in message delivery and being attuned to community fears. For example, a common argument suggests: 1) we don’t know what causes autism, 2) MMR has known side effects, and 3) it is therefore possible that MMR causes autism and thus parents should do the judicious thing and protect their kids from the unknown side effects of MMR.

No amount of scientific data can help in this case without addressing the logical fallacy of that message or addressing the underlying fear. For example, it is true vaccines cause injuries or result in allergic reactions that can be, in rare occasions, very severe.

But vaccine injuries do not equal autism. There is no link between the two. In fact, most cases submitted to the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program (VICP) in the Department of Health and Human Services for compensation involve shoulder injuries. Two-thirds of all cases submitted to VICP have been dismissed. So, yes, vaccines could cause injuries — the odds are very low — but no, not autism.

No correlation

Yet the anti-vaxxers targeting Minnesota Somalis often point to the amount of money victims of vaccine injuries receive as evidence that vaccines are cause for alarm. If that were a logical argument, I would tell members of my community that the car insurance industry pays a lot more as a result of car accidents and injuries. Should we avoid cars in the chance that getting injured in one may cause autism? All medications have side effects. Should we stop taking all medications because they may cause autism?

The simple fact is the odds of autism in vaccinated or unvaccinated children is the same and there is no correlation between MMR and autism. It is time we heed the scientific consensus and vaccinate our kids again. We did it once and there is no reason we couldn’t see vaccination rates greater than 90 percent in our community.

Abdi Warfa is an assistant professor in the college of biological sciences at the University of Minnesota and a member of Minnesota’s Somali community.


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Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Mark Wax on 05/16/2017 - 10:00 am.

    Vaccine Safety

    “Vaccines Are Unavoidably Unsafe”
    Don’t take my word for it. These are the words of Justice Scalia in Bruesewitz v. Wyeth, LLC in a Supreme Court decision in 2011. Unfortunately, due to the protections afforded the vaccine maker in the National Childhood Vaccine Act of 1986, the Court ruled against a vaccine injured plaintiff in the case. How?

    In the 1980s, children were having adverse reactions to the DTP (diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis) vaccine. Lots of lawsuits were being filed against docs and vaccine manufacturers. This caused the pharmaceutical industry to threaten pulling out of the vaccine market, and the alarm bells rang that the nation’s health and safety were at risk. Why were vaccine manufacturers getting ready to take their ball and go home? Because vaccines fall into a class of products considered “unavoidably unsafe.” I am not kidding you. This “unavoidable” word comes from the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act itself “products which, in the present state of human knowledge, are quite incapable of being made safe.”

    In 1986, Congress decided on a way to compensate folks for these avoidable injuries and death. It is called the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program. From 2001 until 2011 the program has compensated about 2500 families a total of $2 billion. There has been close to $4 billion paid to date since inception. But, that represents only a small fraction of those who actually brought claims to the Vaccine Court. You see, there is a 36 month window to bring the claim. There is no “tolling” granted for minors, unlike all the Civil Courts in the U.S. Guess what? Neurological injuries may not present in infants for long after 36 months. Furthermore, who knows how many cases were never brought by attorneys on behalf of a vaccine injured child, because the statute of limitations ran out?

    Don’t let anyone tell you that vaccines don’t cause injury. They have, they do and they will do so in the future. For years, Thimerosal was used as a preservative in multi-dose vials. While still proclaiming it “safe”, vaccine makers “voluntarily” removed Thimerosal. It is still present in trace amounts and in flu vaccine. Thimerosal was never approved by the FDA, as the patents predated the establishment of said regulations. Worried?

    With nearly 6,000 cases pending the USCFC held the “Omnibus Autism Hearings.” They decided not to make “autism” a “table injury.” How convenient. Since there would never be enough money to pay for all who claim an “autism” injury. But, there have been many cases compensated for “encephalopathy” as a diagnosis with reference to autism. You can read it:

    For the record, I am not “anti-vaccine.” Both of my children were fully vaccinated. Unfortunately for us, our son was neurologically disabled by vaccines. It is indisputable, yet the government and the vaccine makers still think that there is a “greater good” to be served. They may be right. But, let’s not fool ourselves. Vaccines can be made safer. It is about money.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 05/16/2017 - 01:37 pm.


      Thanks, guy from Ohio who joined Minnpost today to make this comment.

      And a sincere thanks to Mr. Warfa for writing this piece, and to Ms. Reiss for correcting the inaccurate statements made in Mr. Wax’s comment.

      • Submitted by Sarah Dillingham on 05/17/2017 - 02:23 am.

        National relevance

        Much as the Minnpost editorial staff surely resents out-of-state readers visiting their site to read their content, the situation in Minnesota and in particular the way key details are presented in the press have national relevance and impact. That’s why I’m avidly reading this content here in Maryland, and I will continue to do so.

  2. Submitted by Dorit Reiss on 05/16/2017 - 11:16 am.


    A. The Supreme Court did not actually find vaccines unavoidably unsafe. Justice Scalia actually rejected that argument. I quote from the decision here:

    B. The program, which is a no-fault program that’s easier to win in then the courts, has a rate of compensation of less than 1 per million, highlighting how safe vaccines are.

    C. The Autism Omnibus Proceeding rejected the claims that vaccines cause autism because studies in millions showed they don’t, and the evidence was clear that they didn’t in the cases before the court. These were long, detailed decisions that “were not even close”.

    Vaccines don’t cause autism. Lack of vaccines can put children in the hospital from measles – as here. The Somali community is paying the price of the failure of the Health Department to communicate and the misinformation from anti-vaccine activists.

    • Submitted by Elanne Palcich on 05/22/2017 - 05:49 pm.

      Propaganda vs. research

      Ty Bollinger recently presented an online summit called “The Truth About Vaccines.” A main conclusion of his series is that we are giving too many vaccines too early, and there has not been enough research to prove that vaccines are not at least partially responsible for increasing rates of autism. The U.S. gives the most vaccines of any country and has the highest infant death rate in the industrialized world. Babies are given the hepatitis B vaccine upon birth; following that, multiple doses of vaccines are given at one time; vaccines are often given when a child comes in sick because it’s a convenient time to make sure the child is vaccinated.
      The aluminum adjuvant in vaccines is particularly troubling, along with mercury, formaldehyde, and animal or fetal tissue protein. What makes these toxins more problematic is that they are injected directly into the bloodstream, thus bypassing the digestive and elimination systems.
      Meanwhile, the pharmaceutical industry is making billions worldwide on vaccines. What started off as a few critical vaccines has morphed into a series of vaccines and many require “boosters.”
      While one particular vaccine might not be the “cause” of autism, it may be the trigger that overloads the developmental system of a young child.
      Do not dismiss the concerns of parents whose children have probable vaccine related injury.

  3. Submitted by Goldy Wright on 05/16/2017 - 08:26 pm.

    Not enough studies

    Tom Jefferson of Cochrane acknowledges there has been no proper placebo group.

    “As MMR vaccine is universally recommended, recent studies are constrained by the lack of a non-exposed control group. We were unable to include a majority of the retrieved studies because a comparable, clearly defined control group or risk period was not available

    The Placebo is almost always another vaccine.

    Before a new vaccine can be licensed by the FDA, it must first be tested by something called “concomitant use studies.” Concomitant use studies require new vaccines to be tested with existing vaccines. (A bit like a tobacco company testing cigarettes with another brand of cigarettes and declaring its product safe because there is no difference in the health outcomes of the two groups).

    Also you would know that the excuse given for not doing controlled randomised double blind studies on vaccines is always: controlled randomized double blind studies are unethical in certain circumstances, including the testing of vaccines.

    Dr Colleen Boyle of the CDC testified under oath that no studies have been done on vaccinated/unvaccinated populations
    Posey: My time is very limited here. Clearly, definitely, unequivocally you have studied vaccinated versus unvaccinated?
    Boyle: We have not studied vaccinated versus unvaccinated ..

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