The Minnesota Department of Health is waging a campaign to educate people in the Somali community about the need to inoculate their children against measles amid an outbreak of the disease. Some, but not all of the people found to have the measles are Somali. Health officials are concerned that talk of a link between vaccinations and autism is keeping parents from vaccinating their kids.
A man who makes that link, the British doctor Andrew Wakefield, below, was in Minneapolis last night at the Safari restaurant to speak with Somali families whose children have autism. Wakefield’s findings connecting vaccinations and autism have been discredited, and he has been stripped of his medical license.
Several members of the media, including reporters from MinnPost, the Star Tribune, and me, showed up. We were turned away at the door by organizer Patti Carroll, a Shoreview parent of a child with autism who was identified online as a member of the non-profit Autism One.
Carroll said Wakefield was “not planning on misleading them or brain-washing them or telling them ‘don’t vaccinate your children’ or whatever the heck the media loves to say about him.”
She said the event was private and said some parents prefer to allow their children to get measles, and become immune in the long-term, instead of receiving vaccines they view as potentially harmful.
I got a very different reception in December when Wakefield first came to Minneapolis. He was asking local Somalis to participate in a study that would examine the possible vaccination-autism link. Yet I easily approached him that evening. Among many things, he said he wouldn’t benefit from the study and simply wanted to help families.
All the Somali parents I spoke to at the meeting knew about Wakefield’s past. But they said they would listen to anyone who might know something that could help their children.
There’s preliminary evidence the autism rate among Twin Cities Somali American children is far higher than that of other Americans. The evidence comes from school records that show Somalis seek help from schools about autism more often than others. State health officials say they’re working on a study that could substantiate that evidence. But they say as yet, no solid studies have been done.
So that was all up the air when the measles outbreak struck. I wanted to ask Wakefield what he thought, but this time he refused our requests for comment.