Autism fears, measles spike among Minn. Somalis

Mother and daughter
In this March 29, 2011 photo, Hodan Hassan is shown at her Minneapolis home with her daughter Geni, 6, who has autism. Health officials struggling to contain a measles outbreak that's hit hard in Minneapolis' large Somali community are running into resistance from parents who fear the vaccine could give their children autism.
Jim Mone/AP

Health officials struggling to contain a measles outbreak that's hit hard in Minneapolis' large Somali community are running into resistance from parents who fear the vaccine could give their children autism.

Fourteen confirmed measles cases have been reported in Minnesota since February. Half have been in Somali children, six of whom were not vaccinated and one who was not old enough for shots.

State officials have linked all but one of the cases to an unvaccinated Somali infant who returned from a trip to Kenya in February. The state had reported zero or one case of measles a year for most of the past decade.

Amid the outbreak, a now-discredited British researcher who claimed there was a link between vaccines and autism has been meeting with local Somalis. Some worry Andrew Wakefield is stoking vaccination fears, but organizers say the meetings were merely a chance for parents to ask him questions.

"Unfortunately a lot of the media thinks he's saying 'Don't get vaccinated.' That's far from the truth. He's basically encouraging people to get vaccinated, but do your homework and know the risks," said Wayne Rohde, a co-founder of the Vaccine Safety Council of Minnesota, which says parents should have other options for immunizing their children.

Measles has been all but eradicated in the United States, but accounts for about 200,000 annual deaths worldwide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. None of those infected in Minnesota have died, though eight have required hospitalization.

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The infections come as autism concerns have surged over an apparent rise in cases in Minnesota's Somali community, the largest in the U.S. Officials, though, haven't determined if that's really happening.

Somali autism meeting
Organizers of a December 2010 autism event in Minneapolis are shown: Abdulkadir Khalif, left, Jennifer VanDerHorst-Larson, center, with researcher Dr. Andrew Wakefield, right.
Photo Courtesy of Liban Hussein of Somali MAITV

The Minnesota Department of Public Health found in 2009 that young Somali children in Minneapolis public schools were over-represented in autism programs, but cautioned that alone didn't prove a higher rate of autism. The CDC and National Institutes of Health are working with the advocacy group Autism Speaks on a more systematic study.

Critics argue new efforts are moving too slowly. The lack of answers has frustrated parents of autistic children like Idil Abdull, co-founder of the Somali American Autism Foundation. Abdull, who lives in suburban Savage, said public officials need to be more active with research, resources and services.

Meanwhile, Somali parents hungry for information have met with Wakefield during three recent visits facilitated by local autism activists.

Wakefield's work fueled a backlash against childhood vaccinations after he published a 1998 paper in the medical journal Lancet linking autism to the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine in a dozen children.

But other medical researchers and the Sunday Times of London called Wakefield's work into question. The Lancet retracted his paper last year, the U.K.'s General Medical Council ordered that his name be erased from the country's medical register, and the British Medical Journal in January denounced him as a fraud.

"There is still a significant level of concern in the Somali community, and deservedly so."

Wakefield does not have a listed telephone number and has not responded to emails sent by The Associated Press or messages left with his publisher. But he issued a statement in January standing by his work and calling for more research to determine if environmental triggers, including vaccines, cause autism.

"Any medical professional, government official or journalist who states that the case is closed on whether vaccines cause autism is jumping to conclusions without the research to back it up," he said.

Numerous studies addressing autism and vaccines, or the mercury-based preservative thimerosal, which was formerly used to preserve vaccines, have so far found no link.

About 100 parents attended Wakefield's first Minneapolis appearance in December. About 15 met with him during his most recent visit, on March 23. Rohde said he and others were asked to arrange the meeting by Somali parents who wanted the chance to question Wakefield privately.

Several parents said they were wary of the MMR vaccine because measles is usually temporary while autism is permanent, said Rohde, who lives in suburban Woodbury and has a 13-year-old with autism. Rohde said he doesn't claim the vaccine caused his son's autism by itself but believes it was a factor.

Dr. Abdirahman Mohamed, a Minneapolis Somali family practice physician, contends Wakefield has caused a global hysteria that has cost lives. He said he has warned the Somali community to stay away from the researcher.

"He's using a vulnerable population here, mothers looking for answers," Mohamed said. "He's providing a fake hope."

Hodan Hassan, of Minneapolis, said she stopped vaccinating her four children after her daughter Geni, now 6, was diagnosed with autism when she was about a year old. Hassan said she went to Wakefield's presentation in December and considered him a hero. Then a doctor friend urged her to take a closer look at the rejection of Wakefield's research.

"I feel personally hurt because I believed in him and trusted him, and now I find out all these lies and other things out there," said Hassan, who is currently getting all her children up to date on their shots.

Minnesota requires that all children enrolled in school be vaccinated against measles and other common diseases, but parents can opt out for "conscientiously held beliefs."

Health officials are working with Somali community leaders to urge more parents to get their children vaccinated, though few people have taken advantage of recent clinics.

One clinic conducted last weekend by Children's Hospital in Minneapolis prepared 600 doses, but only 20 children and four adults showed up. Three were Somalis, said Patsy Stinchfield, director of the infectious disease program for Children's Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota.

"There is still a significant level of concern in the Somali community, and deservedly so," said Minnesota Department of Public Health spokesman Buddy Ferguson, noting scientists still don't know what causes autism.

"What we can tell people is that numerous attempts have been made to test the idea scientifically that there's a link between vaccines and autism using large, well-designed studies," he said. "They've never been able to find a link."

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)