Sunday, March 20, 2011

Anti-Vaxxers and Somali Immigrants: Biography of a Measles Outbreak

When I told my husband about the measles outbreak in the Minnesota Somali community, he was rendered speechless. As an immigrant himself—he immigrated to this country from Peru with his family when he was eleven—he found the idea of immigrants, especially from developing nations, refusing vaccinations straining his credulity. In Peru, and certainly in other developing nations, preventable diseases run rampant because of a scarcity of vaccines. Measles is widespread in Africa, including Kenya, from where the Somali infant believed to be the source of the current outbreak had just returned after a trip. Polio is still extant in Asia, including India. Seeing these horrors first-hand, and wanting vaccines for their children but being unable to get them, made vaccines a no-brainer when my husband’s family came to the United States.

“Immigrants are the first ones in line at immunization clinics,” my husband said. “I just don’t understand why this immigrant community would be anti-vaxxers.”

I know.

The Somali communities in both Minnesota and Sweden, which are roughly on the same latitude lines (this comes into play later), have been suffering what seems like higher than normal occurrences of autism in their children. Faced with a terrifying illness with no easy answers, Somali immigrants have often been understandably frightened and looking for reasons why their children have changed so dramatically. Autism rates in Somali are so low as to be considered non-existent. There must be something happening in this new country that is causing this dread disease.

Anti-vaxxers saw an in. Typically unconcerned with lower-income immigrant populations, they saw this cluster of fear as an opportunity to advance their misinformation campaign. Generation Rescue, in particular, made it their mission to begin “educating” Minnesota Somalis about the non-existent links between autism and vaccines. Patti Carroll, a mother living in Shoreview, Minnesota, and a Generation Rescue volunteer, took it upon herself to “advocate” for Somali parents who were parents of autistic children and didn’t want to vaccinate their other children because of the fear of vaccines. She attended a community meeting, that was also attended by representatives from the Minnesota Department of Health and, as she writes, “My suspicions were confirmed: the Department of Health was planning to assure the Somali parents that there was no connection between vaccines and autism.” Incidentally, here is a link to her article:

She subsequently was part of an effort to get copies of the film Autism Yesterday—Autism is Reversable, a 26-minute “documentary” that advances claims that autism is reversible and “preventable," subtitled in the Somali language and circulated in other “Somali settlements.”
            In 2009, the New York Times focused on Generation Rescue’s attempt to terrify Somali parents into not vaccinating their children, and to be suspicious of medical authorities, and even their own pediatricians. JB Handley of the organization actually told Somali parents, point-blank, that their children’s autism was caused by vaccines. From the New York Times, 

[Handley] warned them not to trust the state health department and suggested they slow down their children’s shots and get exemptions to school vaccination requirements. He also offered to pay for some to attend an antivaccine conference.

It is no wonder that vaccination rates among Minnesota Somalis have fallen to 30%. Yes. You read that right. 70% of Somali children are unvaccinated. And a large number of these children return regularly to the African continent, where communicable, vaccine-preventable diseases are commonplace. Generation Rescue, and anti-vaxxers caught up in the Somali question, have used these desperate parents as pawns in their despicable misinformation campaign. And it won’ t be long before these Somali families are not only coping with autism, but with children disabled, or killed, by preventable diseases. The anti-vax campaign has been so successful that last December, Andrew Wakefield was invited by the Somali community to speak on autism and vaccines. 

The blame for this will fall squarely on the shoulders of anti-vaccine advocates who gunned for this vulnerable population. Somalis are a vulnerable population because they are new immigrants, many of them don't speak the language, and precious few of us in Minnesota speak theirs, and they are suddenly faced with a strange new disease that seems to be affecting a large number of children in their community. Doctors, correctly, can give them no definitive answers. People from organizations like Generation Rescue tell these parents that they do have definitive answers--vaccines cause autism. And when these unvaccinated children begin developing autism at the same rate as the vaccinated population, I wonder what their answer will be then. We can no longer afford to sit by and watch this unfold. We must step forward as vaccinating parents and make our voices heard.

Incidentally, one of the more interesting theories about the cluster of autism cases in both Minnesota and Sweden has to do with Vitamin D deficiency. Individuals with darker skin require more Vitamin D, and with the sun too far from the earth in both Sweden and Minnesota during the winter months, even pale-skinned folks like me suffer from Vitamin D deficiency. But I’ll get into that in another post.

For now, we must begin try to repair the damage done by the anti-vax campaign in the Somali community. 

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