Unfounded vaccine fears fuel measles outbreak in Minnesota

A nurse at Merawi health centre in northern Ethiopia prepares a measles vaccine for delivery. (Credit: DfID)

Measles has been eradicated in the Americas, but unfounded autism fears have fueled an outbreak of the disease in a Somali-American community in Minnesota.

State health officials reported seven new measles cases Thursday, bringing the case count to 41 in an outbreak that health officials warn will likely soon spread beyond the state’s Somali ­community. So far, 11 children have been hospitalized.

“It is very possible that we could see cases appearing in different parts of the state where there are pockets of unvaccinated kids,” Kris Ehresmann, infectious disease director for the Minnesota Health Department, told the Star Tribune.

The Minnesota Department of Health said the outbreak began in Hennepin County – the heart of the nation’s Somali-American community. Although the vast majority of kids under 2 get the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine in Minnesota, state health officials say most Somali-American 2-year-olds have not.

It is the largest outbreak in the state since 1990, when 460 people contracted measles and three died.

Measles is an extremely contagious virus that’s easily spread through coughing and sneezing to those who haven’t been immunized. The symptoms of measles generally appear a week or two after infection, starting with a high fever, cough, runny nose, red and watery eyes, and white spots inside the mouth and a distinctive red rash across the body.

For children younger than 5 and adults older than 20 years of age, infection can lead to ear infections and diarrhea as well as more serious complications, such as infection of the lungs and swelling of the brain, resulting in hospitalization and potentially death.

The disease was eradicated in the United States in 2000 (and eradicated in the Americas last year), but outbreaks still occur in tight-knit communities that fail to vaccinate their children. A record number of U.S. measles cases was reported in 2014 – with 667 cases from 27 states – occurring primarily among unvaccinated Amish communities in Ohio.

Such outbreaks typically occur when travelers bring the virus home from abroad.

The so-called “anti-vaxx” movement has taken hold in recent years with the aid of the internet and social media, which allows anti-vaccine groups to transcend factors like religion or income and reach a larger audience.

The effects have been seen worldwide, with vaccine refusal linked to outbreaks of measles, whooping cough and other infectious diseases in regions across Europe, Asia, the Pacific and Africa.

Evidence-based research has repeatedly shown no relationship between the MMR vaccine and autism, and health officials say two doses of vaccination are about 97 percent effective in preventing measles. Before mass vaccination began in 1980, measles caused nearly 2.6 million annual deaths – 500,000 of them children – worldwide.

Since then, enormous strides have been made to eradicate measles, but the disease still killed more than 134,000 people globally in 2015.

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com