How anti-vaccine propaganda fueled Minnesota’s measles outbreak

Minnesota’s largest measles outbreak in more than 25 years is currently raging in the Twin Cities, and it’s largely the fault of anti-vaccination activists.

The outbreak has so far spread to 44 children, 11 of whom have been hospitalized. The local population of Somali immigrants has been hardest hit by the disease. The outbreak came after anti-vaccination propaganda claiming a link between autism and the measles vaccine made its way into the Somali community, where the movement found fertile ground for growth.

“The Somali population in the Twin Cities has had a well-documented issue with autism, one of real concern,” said Michael Osterholm, Director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. “Unfortunately the anti-vaccine community has really exploited that population and their fear of autism by telling them don’t get vaccinated against measles because that’s what will cause the autism problem to occur.

Osterholm was the state epidemiologist at the Minnesota Department of Health in 1990 when the last outbreak struck. There were 460 cases of the disease and three children died. He’s determined not to let that happen again, but admits that combatting misinformation is difficult when going up against emotional parents.

“It’s very hard to convince people of facts when they’re scared into believing that, one, they can’t trust the government, and two, that this vaccine actually causes the problem that they’re most concerned about.”

The anti-vaccination movement started in 1998 when Andrew Wakefield published a study in the medical journal “Lancet” linking autism to the mumps, measles, and rubella (MMR) vaccine. Over the course of the next decade, the study was debunked. Still, the Pandora’s Box of medical misinformation had been opened, and the chaos it continues to cause could have deadly consequences in Minnesota.

Osterholm believes that the only way to make headway against anti-vaxxers is to go after the source: doctors and nurses spreading the phony information.

“We need to be much more aggressive in calling these people for what they are,” said Osterholm. “They exploit people. They are frauds.

He argues that it’s up to healthcare professionals to file complaints against other doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and chiropractors who are spreading dangerous myths associated with vaccines. Osterholm says that if that seems harsh, remember the 1990 outbreak.

“The verdict is in, and we have to start getting aggressive or we’re going to lose kids.”

Listen to the interview:

(Photo: hdptcar)