How Anti-Vaccine Activists Harmed Minnesota’s Somali-American Community

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Andrew Wakefield, a leading advocate of false beliefs about the harmful impact of childhood vaccines. Photo: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

Generally speaking, most people in the United States understand that childhood vaccines are safe and necessary. This is a good thing, because even relatively small cracks in vaccination rates can threaten the “herd immunity” that keeps society safe from certain diseases. Unfortunately, as a column in Stat News by Saad Omer points out, some groups are more susceptible to anti-vaccine charlatanism than others, and Minnesota’s Somali-American community has been hit pretty hard.

This group has been “systematically and incessantly warned against vaccines. Activists including Andrew Wakefield — who published a fraudulent paper in the late ’90s pushing the vaccine-autism myth – made multiple visits to the Minneapolis area to engage a community that was trying to find its place in society.” “They are everywhere,” noted one outreach worker of the anti-vaccination activists. “Like, every event, every forum.”

The results have been predictable and tragic: “Minnesota is now experiencing its worst outbreak in 30 years. It’s centered among Somali-Americans.” And as is often the case when something like this happens, they are being singled out for blame — despite the fact that the choice not to vaccinate their kids was the direct result of outsiders to their community instilling unfounded fears.

“If there is a lesson in this unfolding tragedy, it is that public health authorities and practitioners need to work hard to build trust and resilience among minority communities targeted by vaccine skeptics,” writes Omer. “This resilience to misinformation is important for preventing and controlling outbreaks. But building resilience is also important for ensuring that frequently marginalized communities do not face xenophobic allegations in an environment increasingly inhospitable to communities of immigrants.” Anti-vaccine zealots have created a truly tragic and ugly situation in Minnesota.

How Anti-Vaccine Activists Harmed Somali-Americans