Minnesota is currently dealing with the worst measles outbreak the state has seen in the past three decades.
According to the state health department, there have been 44 confirmed cases since the outbreak was first identified in April.
This is particularly worrisome given the high transmission rate of the virus — one person with measles can infect between 12 and up to 18 other people in the unimmunized population.
The vast majority of cases were reported among the Somali-American community in Hennepin County, which experts argue has been influenced by vaccine denialism propaganda aiming to convince parents against administering the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine to their children.
One in four children who contracted the disease required hospitalization. Of the 44 newly diagnosed cases, 42 were reported in patients who hadn't received the vaccine.
The anti-vaccination campaign is based on the myth — amply debunked by science — that the MMR vaccine is linked to autism spectrum disorder or ASD, and drives on parents' fear that their children may develop autism if they are vaccinated against measles, mumps or rubella.
How The Minnesota Anti-Vaccine Trend Started
About seven years ago, the Somali-American community living in Cedar-Riverside, Minneapolis, observed an increase in autism rates among their children.
Concerned parents turned to city officials, who commissioned a study to find out why the Somali children were so susceptible to the disease.
Research carried out by the University of Minnesota, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the National Institutes of Health revealed there was indeed a high prevalence of ASD in the community.
However, Somali children weren't shown to be more affected than white children. In Minneapolis, the Somali autism rate was found identical to the one in the white population.
The difference between the two groups was the Somali Minnesotans reported higher-than-normal rates of severe autism, whereas white children seemed to contract milder forms of the disease.
The investigation was not able to determine why this happened. Distraught, Somali parents began looking for answers in other places, wherever information was available.
The internet was there to provide all kinds of data, from both pro-vaccine and anti-vaccine websites. The latter managed to convince these frightened parents that their children's disease was caused by the MMR vaccine. As a result, vaccination rate among Somali-American children has plummeted since 2008.
Anti-Vaxx Activists In Minnesota
Today, only four out of every 10 Somali children in Minneapolis are immunized with the MMR vaccine, and the drop in vaccination rate has been directly attributed to the influence of anti-vaxx advocates over the community.
Over the years, the proliferation of misleading information on the internet, as well as different groups promoting parental choice for vaccination, have managed to convince the community to actively refuse the MMR vaccine.
The most recent example is the Vaccine Safety Council for Minnesota, which organized a public meeting on April 30 specifically for the Somali Community. Speaking at the meeting, Mark Blaxill detailed to an audience of 90 people the dangers of measles vaccine and its supposed link to autism in children.
Health experts point out these anti-vaccine activists — marching on misinformation and unsubstantiated claims that the CDC study examining the link between MMR vaccine and autism publicized false results — have in fact contributed to the measles outbreak in Minnesota.
This is the second measles outbreak plaguing this particularly vulnerable community, after the one in 2011.
Particularly illustrative is the case of Andrew Wakefield, the discredited doctor who falsely documented the link between vaccines and autism in a study published by the journal The Lancet in 1998.
Although his research was proven bogus (his paper has been retracted and his medical license revoked), Wakefield continued to appear in a series of public lectures and was involved, together with other vaccine deniers, in outreach campaigns in Minnesota over the past several years.
Wakefield met with upset Somali families three times between 2010 and 2011. The current misinformation he promoted in Minnesota led to people declining the MMR vaccine for their children, for fear of the nonexistent link between vaccination and ASD.
"The answer used to be education — the more educated you were on the issue the more likely you were to get vaccinated," says Michael Osterholm, director of the University of Minnesota's Center for Infectious Disease Research.
"The challenge is for scientists to be humble and acknowledge that in this day and age facts will not win the day," he adds.