I had the pleasure of traveling to Rochester, Minnesota for a wedding this summer. Minnesota is home to more people from Somalia than any other state. My home of Columbus, Ohio is also a hub for people from Somalia. As a pediatric resident, I take care of Somali-American children and work with Somali American healthcare providers every day.
It was surreal, then, to set foot in a state recovering from a measles outbreak with more cases than the entire country saw last year. I was only ninety minutes away from Minneapolis, the center of the outbreak. Former physician and academic fraud Andrew Wakefield traveled there several times in 2011 amidst an earlier measles outbreak at the invitation of local anti-vaccination proponents.
At that time, Somali-American children were being diagnosed with a condition that their parents weren’t overly familiar with: autism spectrum disorder. Autism has no equivalent word in Somali. Like any concerned parents would do, they set out to determine the cause.
Their friendly neighborhood anti-vaccination advocates were all too happy to weigh in. And, they convinced the community that Mr. Wakefield could tell them more. We all know what happened next: this year measles struck Minnesota affecting 79 people. 74 of the victims were children and 71 were unvaccinated. Roughly one-quarter were hospitalized to the tune of over $500,000. The cost to immunize the 71 unvaccinated pales in comparison: $2,923.78 to $9,518.26. Surprising no one, Mr. Wakefield said of the outbreak, “I don’t feel responsible at all.”
Mr. Wakefield has the capacity to understand that there’s no science to what he’s selling. One would think he’d empathize with his fellow immigrant, then, and spare them his snake oil sales pitch. At roughly 15 percent, Somalia’s current under-5 mortality rate ranks 4th in the world. Its civil war has raged, in one phase or another, for over 30 years. Their status as refugees made them vulnerable. That didn’t spare them from being targeted by Mr. Wakefield and his anti-vaccination acolytes.
Although the measles outbreak in Minnesota is winding down, Mr. Wakefield continues to operate in the U.S. Only five years separated his visit to Minnesota and the start of the measles outbreak there. Who knows what communities he’s met with since? The swell of immunization advocacy on social media in response to this outbreak has been fantastic. It shouldn’t abate as the Minnesota outbreak dies down. Because, while a disease outbreak is news, lack of one isn’t. Or, as the comedian John Oliver put it: “After all, nobody is going on Facebook to post “Didn’t get polio again today! SO LIT!” It’s up to us as members of the medical community to continue shining a light on the activities of Mr. Wakefield and anti-vaccination agents nationwide. Their fictional narrative must be routinely countered with fact. Somali parents aren’t the only ones who want what’s best for their children. We have to make sure parents everywhere know the truth about vaccination: It’s safe, effective, and one of the most loving things they can do for their children.
Sean Gallagher is a pediatric resident. He can be reached on Twitter @TheKidKidDoc.
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