Anti-Vaccine Movement Fuels Largest Measles Outbreak in Minnesota in Decades

Anti-Vaccine Movement Fuels Largest Measles Outbreak in Minnesota in Decades

The World Health Organization estimates that 17.1 million lives have been saved by the measles vaccine since 2000 [1]. The disease had been nearly eradicated in the United States by the turn of the century, but the propagation of research that inaccurately linked immunizations with autism made some parents wary of vaccinating their children [2]. The Minnesota Department of Health has confirmed 69 cases of measles since early April 2017 [3]. All but two people affected by the virus were not vaccinated against the disease [2].

The director of the Minnesota Department of Health’s Infectious Disease Epidemiology, Prevention and Control Division, Kristen Ehresmann, claims that members of the Somali-American community, which make up 59 of the 69 [6] of the confirmed cases, were “targeted” by anti-vaccination activists [7]. Prior to 2008, the vaccination rates of the Somali-American community were higher than those of the white population [2].  However, beginning in 2008, those in the anti-vaccination movement met with families to discuss now-debunked information surrounding the alleged dangers of immunization [4]. Former doctor Andrew Wakefield spearheaded the spread of anti-vaccine sentiment through public lectures and widespread outreach campaigns which in turn reduced vaccination rates. In 1998, Wakefield published a study in The Lancet, which suggested a link between vaccines and autism [5]. The relatively high rate of Somali children with autism in Minnesota contributed to a community particularly susceptible to the misinformation spread by Wakefield’s movement [8]. In 2010, British authorities found Wakefield guilty of accepting over half a million dollars from lawyers aiming to sue vaccine manufacturers, and Wakefield’s license to practice medicine was consequentially revoked [5]. In addition, repeated, large-scale studies carried out with hundreds of thousands of participants have found no link between vaccines and autism [4].  Despite rejection by the scientific community, Wakefield’s persuasive tactics penetrated certain areas and immunization rates plummeted from 92% in 2004 to 42% in 2014 for Minnesota-born children of Somali descent [4].

The measles virus is uniquely communicable; one person with measles can infect up to 18 others. The virus is airborne and can live on surfaces and in the air for several hours. Additionally, physical signs of the disease go unnoticed until days after infection, further facilitating its rapid spread. Health officials note that the recent rise in vaccine denial poses a threat to public health due to the necessity of “herd immunity”; the idea that a vaccine’s efficacy depends in part on a high proportion of the population being immunized [4]. This prevents the spread of disease while protecting populations unable to be vaccinated, such as those with allergies or newborns [2]. In the case of Minnesota, Health Commissioner Dr. Edward Ehlinger stated that his department is partnering with Somali community leaders and health care providers to “counteract misinformation" in order to promote immunization and prevent further outbreaks [6].

References:

  1. “Measles vaccination has saved an estimated 17.1 million lives since 2000,” World Health Organization,  2015. http://www.who.int/mediacentre/news/releases/2015/measles-vaccination/en/

  2. Mele, Christopher. “Minnesota sees largest measles outbreak in almost 30 years,” The New York Times, May 5 2017.  https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/05/us/measles-minnesota-vaccines.html

  3. “MDH: measles cases now at 69,” Kare 11 NBC, May 22 2017. http://www.kare11.com/news/mdh-measles-cases-now-at-69/433731747

  4. Belluz, Julia. “Minnesota fighting largest measles outbreak in 30 years,” Vox, May 16 2017.https://www.vox.com/2017/5/8/15577316/minnesota-measles-outbreak-explained

  5. Szabo, Liz. “Vaccines: breaking down and debunking 10 myths,” USA Today, January 11 2017. https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/2017/01/11/vaccines-breaking-down-and-debunking-10-myths/96454552/

  6. “State officials confirm five new cases of measles in Hennepin County,” Minnesota Department of Health, April 14 2017.  http://www.health.state.mn.us/news/pressrel/2017/measles041417.html   

  7. Howard, Jacqueline. “Anti-vaccine groups blamed in Minnesota measles outbreak,” CNN, May 8 2017. http://www.cnn.com/2017/05/08/health/measles-minnesota-somali-anti-vaccine-bn/index.html

  8. McNeil, Donald. “Autism rates are higher for US-born Somali children in Minneapolis,” The New York Times, March 31 2009. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/01/health/01autism.html

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