A year after severe outbreak, more Somali-American kids are vaccinated against measles

Amira Hassan wears a mask to protect her as she plays in the waiting room.
In this 2017 photo, Amira Hassan, of Burnsville, Minn., plays in the waiting room at the specialty clinic at Children's Minnesota in Minneapolis, while her dad, Mohamud Hassan, fills out paperwork. A year after a measles outbreak, the vaccination rates in Minnesota have increased 16 percentage points among Somali-American children.
Amy Forliti | AP

This Saturday will mark a year since Minnesota experienced its most severe measles outbreak in recent history, and public health officials are still trying to get the word out about measles vaccinations.

Last year, the state had 75 cases of the disease, making it the largest outbreak since 1990. Almost a third of those patients got so sick that they were hospitalized. Even though there is an effective measles vaccine, health officials say 91 percent of those who came down with the disease last year were not vaccinated against the disease.

Since last year, public health officials say they've implemented new strategies to help combat infectious disease outbreaks and educate parents about the importance of vaccination.

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Have measles cases been discovered in Minnesota this year?

Yes. Earlier this month, health officials announced that a Somali-American child who had recently traveled to a country where measles is common came down with the disease. Measles has been identified in a second child who lives in Kenya but who traveled to Minnesota and also came down with the disease while here.

Public health officials say that these most recent cases are a good reminder that even if measles is rare in the United States, it's still important to get the vaccine because travelers can carry it with them and infect people who haven't had the shots.

Measles vaccine
A measles vaccine is shown in this file photo from April 28, 2008.
Thomas Kienzle | AP

Are vaccination rates up this year?

Among Somali-American kids, where last year's outbreak was centered, they are.

At the time of last year's outbreak, the vaccine coverage rate for Somali-American kids was 42 percent and this year it's about 58 percent.

The measles vaccination rate for non-Somali-American children is about 91 percent.

Why are fewer Somali-American children vaccinated?

A higher rate of Somali-American parents suspect vaccine causes autism. That's not backed-up by science, but the myth has been perpetuated in the community by anti-vaccine groups and advocates.

So before and after last year's outbreak, the health department worked to educate Somali-American parents about the measles vaccine.

What has changed since last year?

In the 2017 legislative session, legislators created a $5 million fund meant exclusively to combat major infectious disease outbreaks. That's because infectious diseases can strike quickly and unexpectedly and they require a rapid response. Some of that money has been used to target measles outbreaks.

At the same time, the legislature changed the state's quarantine statute. Previously, the law only provided quarantine protections to individuals with infectious diseases. But that proves problematic when kids are the ones being quarantined because they need an adult to stay at home with them. So the language was changed to extend those protections to caregivers and guardians as well.

What are some of the ongoing challenges the health department sees when it comes to preventing measles outbreaks?

Health officials say the biggest challenge is that they can't rest on their laurels. Kids across the state are being born every day, and the goal is for 100 percent coverage.

But specifically in the Somali-American community, these long-standing fears about the false link between vaccines and autism continue to be difficult to overcome.

That said, public health officials say they've learned a lot when it comes to talking about immunizations with members of the Somali-American community. For instance, focusing on debunking the link between vaccines and autism wasn't very effective. Public health officials said they learned that they needed to talk about child development more broadly and then talk about vaccines.

Meanwhile, the health department has added Somali-American outreach workers. And they continue to enlist help from faith leaders, which seems to have been effective because they play a critical role in disseminating accurate information.