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.
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.