Countering the Anti-Vaccine Movement

The measles outbreak in Minnesota is being blamed on Anti Vaccine activists who often target the Somali community with propaganda that falsely connects autism to vaccines. There are now 54 confirmed cases in Minnesota and 48 of them are unvaccinated Somali children under the age of 10.

Measles is a highly infectious disease that can even be deadly. The outbreak in Minnesota started less than 6 weeks ago with one unvaccinated child and since then it has spread to 53 people in four different counties. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says “measles is so contagious that if one person has it, 90% of the people close to that person who are not immune will also become infected.”

The unvaccinated rate among Somali Americans started plummeting back in 2008 when the anti-vaccine community started organizing events in Somali neighborhoods that linked autism to the MMR vaccine. Prior to that, Somali children had a higher than average vaccination rate of 94% and since then that rate has dropped to 42%. That is a dangerously low vaccination rate and it is being considered an epidemic by health officials in Minnesota.

That led many to ask the question, is anti-vaccine propaganda protected under the constitution? The short answer is yes. But one could also argue that such rhetoric could lead to harming others. That is also true but the constitution protects any speech as long as it doesn’t call for immediate violence.

Censoring speech can be a slippery slope that should not be dictated by any public official. However, local businesses, Universities and the media can take it upon themselves not to lend their platforms to discredited propaganda like the anti-vaccine groups that have targeted the Somali community for over a decade.

As we reported on a previous issue, in the midst of the measles outbreak, an anti-vaccine group was able to host an event at a popular Somali restaurant that attracted over 200 Somali parents. The group was able to get their message across, pass out fliers and collect emails. Anti-Vaccine groups are only able to spread their lies using platforms that are already trusted by the community like websites, Universities, newspapers and local businesses. A socially responsible organization should not let its platform be exploited by discredited ideologies like the one that’s being actively spread by a small group of people who have no scientific evidence that links the MMR vaccine to autism.

Health officials in Minnesota are scrambling to stop the measles outbreak by identifying the people who have been exposed and also reaching out to the parents of unvaccinated children urging them to get vaccinated. An Incident Command Unit, which consists of dozens of health officials from different departments at the Department of Health has been assigned the daunting task of stopping the spread of Measles in the state.

The group has had some success by identifying 7000 individuals who have been exposed to the virus at child care centers, schools, and hospitals. By Identifying the exposed people, health officials believe they can prevent them from getting sick and infecting others.  There has also been a surge in the vaccination rates among the unvaccinated children. Outreach programs by the state as well as local health providers are credited with effectively communicating with the parents of the unvaccinated children in the Somali community.

False propaganda should always be countered with education, evidence and isolation. As anti-vaccine groups target the Somali community in Minnesota, it is very important for the community leaders, mosques and schools to discredit them. Restaurants, banquets and the local media should never allow the spreading of false speech on their place of business. As health officials try to stop the spread of the virus, the leaders of the Somali community should also do their part in educating their community and keeping out the harm.

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