Measles outbreak in Minnesota: What can we learn from it?

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15-month-old August Goepferd received the measles, mumps and rubella booster shot at a clinic at Children's Minnesota in Minneapolis. August sat on the lap of his mom, Dr. Angela Geopferd, as registered nurse Kim Flaata administered the shot. A measles outbreak in Minnesota has sickened more than 30 children, mostly in the state's large Somali community, which has a low immunization rate. Health officials are trying to control the disease's spread by urging immunizations for the unvaccinated, as well as an accelerated booster shot schedule for children who may be at risk.

You might have heard recently that Minnesota is experiencing an ongoing outbreak of measles cases in mostly unvaccinated children. The Minnesota Department of Health reported last week that there have been 51 cases, only two of which have had adequate immunization against the virus. The outbreak is likely to continue for some time.

This clearly demonstrates the risk to individuals and communities from vaccine misconceptions. It also sheds light on the harmful actions of anti-vaccine groups when they target vulnerable communities. Here's what you need to know:

Where? The outbreak is in three counties around Minneapolis, mostly in Hennepin County which has a high concentration of Somali Americans.

Who? The outbreak is mostly affecting unvaccinated Somali Minnesotan children (46 out 51 cases). This number of measles cases is highly unusual for a state that usually has one or two cases every year.

Why? This is the big story here. Many public health officials have warned for years that an outbreak was becoming more likely due to misinformation targeting the Somali community in the U.S. and U.K. Some Somali parents have had difficulty dealing when some of their children were diagnosed with autism.

Taking advantage of this, anti-vaccine crusaders such as the discredited Andrew Wakefield started coming to Minneapolis to talk to Somali families as early as 2011. That year, there was another measles outbreak in Minneapolis. Others have used the Somali’s Muslim faith to promote vaccine misinformation. There has been extensive research that should no link between autism and the measles vaccine. Research at the University of Minnesota also found no difference in the incidence of autism between Somali and white Minnesotan children.

Some anti-vaccinators in the U.S., Nigeria and India have used the pretext of Islam to discourage vaccination of children leading to multiple outbreaks of preventable diseases and even jeopardizing the global effort to eradicate the polio virus. In fact, Islam, Christianity and Judaism are pro-vaccination. Vaccines are so clearly life-saving that religious authorities give exceptions for vaccines containing or having exposure to pork products (Islam and Judaism) or stem cells (Catholicism).

I have been a pediatrician for 23 years. In this short time in the history of vaccines, I have seen a drastic change with the introduction of new vaccines that target pneumonia, ear infections, meningitis, deadly throat infections, blood infections, cervical cancer, and warts. I see so much less of these horrible infections that my practice is completely different now than in 1991.

I now worry less about bacterial pneumonia, meningitis, or blood infection when a child comes to me with a fever. In the early 90s, I used to worry more and test for these infections. More often than today, I will find instead pus in the brain, white spots in lungs on x-ray, or bacteria in the blood. Today, I do not even keep needles to test spinal fluid for infection or blood culture bottles to test for bacteria. I worry less today about these infections—unless the child is unvaccinated. Please keep this in mind when it comes to the importance of vaccinating our children.

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