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Current Minnesota measles outbreak linked to misplaced vaccination-autism fears

We’re now in the midst of a measles outbreak in Minnesota. As of last Friday, the Minnesota Department of Health had documented six cases of the illness in the state this year.
This is a troubling development.

We’re now in the midst of a measles outbreak in Minnesota. As of last Friday, the Minnesota Department of Health had documented six cases of the illness in the state this year.

This is a troubling development. Since 2005, Minnesota had been averaging only about one case of measles a year.

According to a Health Department statement, “The likely source [of the current outbreak] is an infant who traveled to Kenya and returned in the beginning of February. Cases have ranged in age from nine months to four years. Two of the cases were too young to receive vaccine, three were of age but were not vaccinated, and one has unknown vaccine status. There have been four hospitalizations and no deaths.”

Sadly, as local media reported over the weekend, a major factor in the current measles outbreak in Minnesota is the misguided fear among some parents of a link between childhood vaccinations and autism.

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As Minnesota Public Radio’s Lorna Benson reported,

Half of the cases so far have been in Somali children who were not immunized. Some Somali parents told the Health Department they didn’t vaccinate their kids because they were worried that they would develop autism.
There is no evidence to support that concern. But the fear, which was fueled by a debunked British study, has been a powerful deterrent against vaccination in the Somali community. …
It’s not known exactly how many Somali families are skipping the Measles, Mumps and Ruebella vaccine, also known as the MMR. But at the Axis Medical Center in Minneapolis, Dr. Abdirahman Mohamed estimates that as many as 70 percent of the Somalis he knows have not given their children the vaccine.
“Every family will tell you that ‘We’re not going to give our children the MMR. We’re afraid that they’re going to get autism,'” Mohamed said.

But, of course, it’s not just Somali parents who have bought into the scientifically disproven idea that the MMR vaccine causes autism. As the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has reported, measles is making a comeback in communities across the country — a trend that’s overwhelmingly due to parental fear of vaccinations.

Parental complacency is also partly responsible. Many parents shrug off measles as “just a minor kids’ illness.” They don’t realize that it can have serious health consequences. Although the vast majority of children recover from this respiratory illness, up to one in 20 children get pneumonia and about one in 1,000 develop encephalitis as a result of the infection. For every 1,000 children who come down with measles, one or two will die.

Before a vaccine was developed, measles caused some 450 Americans (mostly children) to die and another 1,000 to suffer permanent brain damage or deafness each year, according to the CDC. The disease continues to kill about 200,000 people annually around the world.

Measles is highly contagious, which is why the Minnesota Health Department is taking some aggressive steps to contain the current outbreak — and not just among the Somali community. Writes Maura Lerner in the Minneapolis Star Tribune:

As part of the investigation, health officials have been tracking down people who may have been exposed to the infected children, and in some cases, asking families to keep their children home for three weeks if they’ve not been vaccinated. [State epidemiologist Dr. Ruth] Lynfield said it could take that long for an infected child to show symptoms, which include fever, cough, and a rash that spreads down from the scalp and through the body.
Typically, children get the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine at 12 months of age and a booster shot 3 to 5 years later. But Lynfield said that, because of the outbreak, the health department is now recommending that children get the booster shot only four weeks after the first one, to increase their immunity. The recommendation affects families in Hennepin County, and Somali families throughout the metropolitan area.

Let’s hope this current outbreak stops at six, but health officials told Lerner that they’re bracing for more cases.

FYI: The Hennepin County Immunization Services is holding two MMR vaccination clinics this week for people with and without health insurance. One is today, March 21, from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. at the Health Services building on Portland Ave. The other is Sunday, March 27, from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. at Children’s Hospital. Immunizations are also available at all regularly scheduled Immunization Services walk-in clinics. You’ll find more information and directions here.