State action needed to boost immunization

Published 7:47 am Friday, May 19, 2017

Minneapolis Star Tribune

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency

To those who dismiss the risk of measles, consider these numbers: In 2015, this childhood disease caused more than 134,200 deaths globally, according to the World Health Organization. In Minnesota, as of Friday, there were 32 children, at least 11 of whom required hospitalization, infected with this potentially fatal but entirely preventable illness.

It is heartbreaking to watch case numbers rise in what has become one of the state’s biggest outbreaks of measles in years. So far, all those who have become ill range in age from 11 months to 5, an age group among the most susceptible to measles’ serious complications such as pneumonia or encephalitis.

Twenty-eight of the children are Somali-Americans. All have this in common: They are either unvaccinated or not fully vaccinated against this highly communicable disease. It is this last point about vaccination participation — a growing problem in many Minnesota communities, not just Somali-Americans — that should prompt legislative action.

Dishonest information spread by anti-vaccination activists about measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine risks is at the root of this alarming outbreak, causing parents to forgo or delay these vital shots. It is time for Minnesota to follow the lead of states such as California and tighten laws that allow parents wide latitude to exempt their children from school immunization requirements. However, legislation introduced in St. Paul this session went nowhere.

Minnesota’s Somali-American families should know that the state stands with their community during this outbreak. It is important to note the exemplary response from Somali-American faith leaders, medical providers, youth workers and communicators. A meeting held Wednesday in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood in Minneapolis illustrated the community’s concern and eagerness to work with health officials.

The main fear in the community is that the MMR triggers autism — a link that continues to be disproved by large, reputable medical studies. Moreover, research suggests that brain changes linked to autism start before the MMR is given. But fears about the developmental disorder are deeply rooted here, in part due to a study showing that autism prevalence is about the same in Somali-Americans as it is in whites, but that the developmental disorder may be more severe.

That anti-vaccine advocates have recognized this fear and “targeted” Minnesota’s Somali-Americans is an outrage. Social-media posts by local activists, for example, recently discussed strategies to urge Somali-Americans to resist the vaccination even in the midst of this outbreak.

Fortunately, local leaders like Sharif Abdirahman Mohamed, an imam at Dar al Hijrah mosque, are working closely with public health officials to urge parents to get the shots. Abdirahman, also a Fairview Health Services chaplain, cautions against heeding anti-vaccine “false prophets.” Instead, he said, “Listen and take advice from people who are experts.”

The imam, a father of six, also emphasizes that he vaccinated his six children. His example and his words offer wise guidance for all Minnesotans. Still, lawmakers need to act. California’s vaccination rates are rising after a 2014 measles outbreak at Disneyland prompted the state to end “personal belief” exemptions for school shots and require written medical waivers from doctors.

Minnesota’s lax personal belief exemptions leave kids at unconscionable risk. Legislative remedy is urgent.