Science, Now + Beyond

Why is this Muslim community suffering a major measles outbreak?

Yep, you read that correctly. It's happening.

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There’s a measles outbreak happening in Minnesota right now.

Yes, you read that correctly.

Since April of this year, 79 cases of measles have been confirmed, 74 of which are in children (ages 0-17) and 64 of which are occurring in Somali Minnesotans, according to the Minnesota Department of Health. Out of these 79 cases, 71 were confirmed among individuals who were unvaccinated for the disease; this is not a coincidence.

Since April of this year, 79 cases of measles have been confirmed in Minnesota. Click To Tweet

Measles is both incredibly infectious (it is an airborne virus) and deadly. Medical care can prevent further complications or ensure that symptoms are managed to an extent, but there is no cure, so to speak. It is, however, entirely preventable.

Measles is entirely preventable. Click To Tweet

Before a vaccine was created for measles, this disease took hundreds of lives every year in the US alone and led to tens of thousands of hospitalizations. Fortunately, in 1963, the measles vaccine was introduced, and measles was actually eradicated in the US in 2000.

However, because of anti-vaccine groups pushing parents to opt out of vaccinating their children, outbreaks have occurred here and there. For example, in 2014, an abnormally large outbreak of measles (over 600 cases) occurred in an Amish community that was collectively refusing vaccines.

Due to vaccines, measles was actually eradicated in the US in 2000. Click To Tweet

Why is this happening specifically to children of Somali descent?

There is evidence that Somali-Americans, in particular, have been the target of misinformation regarding vaccines, misinformation which then became widely spread and accepted among the entire Somali-American community, resulting in families denying vaccines for their children.

Somali-Americans have been the target of misinformation regarding vaccines. Click To Tweet

The Somali-American community in Minnesota felt that autism was becoming prevalent in their community in a way that was disproportionate to other communities. In response to this concern, the University of Minnesota agreed to research autism prevalence and ultimately found that there was no such disproportionate prevalence.

However, advocates representing the anti-vaccine movement organized repeated events and meetings for Minnesota’s Somali-American community, during which Andrew Wakefield (known for falsely spreading the idea that vaccines cause autism) was invited to speak to parents about their children’s health.

Andrew Wakefield is known for falsely spreading the idea that vaccines cause autism. Click To Tweet

This is a particularly disgusting form of targeting because immigrant populations such as the one mentioned are mainly composed of individuals who are unfamiliar with the English language and still in the process of learning how the American healthcare system works. These individuals are often vulnerable, marginalized, and unable to advocate for themselves.

Because of these reasons, among others, immigrant communities often seek guidance from sources outside their community regarding issues such as health. Wakefield’s followers took full advantage of this vulnerability. As a result, anti-vaccine sentiment, although scientifically baseless and uncharacteristic of views in Somalia, is now deeply entrenched in Minnesota’s Somali-American community.

Anti-vaccine sentiment is now deeply entrenched in Minnesota’s Somali-American community. Click To Tweet

Unfortunately, it has become entrenched to an extent that will be difficult to repair long-term even with the recent outbreak of measles. It is entirely possible, and perhaps even likely, that these anti-vaccine sentiments will be passed down from generation to generation, the way so many health-related myths are passed down in tight-knit, minority communities.

We can do better.

In fact, we must do better. This really should not be happening, especially when so many Muslims are in the medical field.

When it comes to providing information, education, and awareness, we need to be at least twice as active as the anti-vaccine movement, and we need to actively reach the right people: those who do not have easy access to education or information. Lack of education should not be the reason we take advantage; it should be the reason we educate.

Lack of education is not a reason to take advantage. Click To Tweet

The primary victims of this entirely preventable measles outbreak are the children of Somali immigrants who left their home country to provide themselves and their children with better access to education, healthcare, and opportunities to succeed, much like my parents did.

The irony is that they have come to a “developed” country and are still suffering the very same fate as so many people in their homeland. The victims are suffering a fate they essentially left their home to be safe from.

The victims are suffering a fate they left their homeland to be safe from. Click To Tweet

If I’m being honest, it is somewhat appalling to me that this community in Minnesota had to rely on false professionals to gain information regarding the health of their children. In my personal experience, every Muslim community I have ever been a part of has been composed primarily of individuals in the medical field.

Because of this, it is profoundly disappointing to me that somehow our Somali-American brothers and sisters have been let down in such a devastating way.

How educated we are has become a status symbol, and who we interact with reinforces that status. Click To Tweet

Becoming a doctor is a wonderful thing, but too often something detrimental happens: when immigrants Muslims become successful doctors, they often stop interacting in meaningful ways with anyone in their community who is not a doctor, professional, or whatever they perceive as educated.

In other words, how educated we are and what we do for a living has become a status symbol, and who we interact with reinforces that status. Whether we realize it or not, we often stop interacting with people who we deem lesser than ourselves or with whom we have less in common, even though we call ourselves a community.

This needs to change.

There is a huge lack of medical awareness in immigrant Muslim communities. Click To Tweet

There is such a huge, gaping lack of medical awareness in immigrant Muslim communities that really should not exist if we, and especially the physicians in our midst, simply care for one another indiscriminately.

No, I do not “blame Muslims” for Minnesota’s recent outbreak of a long-eradicated virus.

I do, however, see this outbreak as an opportunity to realize that we can and should be doing better.

We really can and should be doing better.

Aafia Syed

Aafia Syed

Aafia is pursuing a Master's in Early Childhood Special Education at Bank Street College of Education. She is vocal about her personal challenges with mental illness and believes in bringing an end to both cultural and religious taboos. Her goals for the future include seeing Hamilton on Broadway, overcoming her own crippling stage-fright, and contributing to the destruction of the patriarchy.

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