Minneapolis Measles Outbreak Prompts Somali Community Forum In Columbus

May 19, 2017

Earlier this month, word of a measles outbreak came from the Twin Cities in Minnesota. The majority of the 64 people affected were Somali-American. 

While Minneapolis and the Twin Cities has the largest concentration of that demographic in the U.S., Columbus is second. Dr. Mysheika Roberts, medical director and assistant health commissioner at Columbus Public Health, says that population is especially susceptible to outbreaks.

"We know that in the Minneapolis area the Somali-American population there have had some really significant concerns about autism and autism's relationship with vaccines particularly the MMR vaccine," Roberts says.

Those concerns arise from unfounded claims that getting vaccinated can lead to autism, misinformation spread by anti-vaccine activists who have targeted that community in particular.

On Saturday, Columbus Public Health and Franklin County Public Health held forums at the Somali Community Association of Ohio about the Measles, Mumps, and Rubella (MMR) vaccine. 

WOSU's Clare Roth talked to Roberts about the forums and the campaign to educate Columbus' high-risk populations about the need to get vaccinated.

Clare Roth: Is Columbus in general or Somali-Americans in Columbus specifically at a high risk of a measles outbreak?

Mysheika Roberts: Well we feel that our Somali community is at a potentially high risk of a measles outbreak just because of their close relationship with Somali-Americans in Minneapolis.

We know that they have many family and friends in that area and that this is a time of graduations, whether it be from high school or college, as well as school is about to get out for the summer. So there might be more likely to travel to visit one another.

So that's why we're most concerned about this population given the outbreak in Minneapolis.

Clare Roth: The population in Minneapolis is obviously larger than the population in Columbus, but they are both sizable populations of Somali Americans. Is there a reason why Columbus hasn't had this type of outbreak while Minnesota has?

Mysheika Roberts: So I think there are a few different reasons to explain this. We know that in the Minneapolis area the Somali-American population there have had some really significant concerns about autism and autism's relationship with vaccines, particularly the MMR vaccine.

We also know that that community specifically has been targeted by the anti-vaccine movement and it has had many visits from some very notable individuals in the anti-vaccine movement.

We also have data that shows you know the last four to five years, if not longer, the vaccination rates in the Somali-American population in Minneapolis specifically has decreased significantly, so the number of individuals who are unvaccinated particularly against MMR has increased significantly.

So you know those are all factors that make that community at great risk for getting a measles outbreak.

Clare Roth: Do we see those types of factors present here in Columbus as well?

Mysheika Roberts: Well I should say that anti-vaccine, or the anti-vaccination movement, is everywhere. It's not just in the Somali community. So we do know we have pockets of our community here in Columbus and Franklin County that don't like to vaccinate their kids or don't want to vaccinate their kids and are concerned about the association and what they believe is an association between autism and vaccines particularly the MMR vaccine.

So based on the data that we've been able to gather thus far, it looks like, you know, just like we knew before. There are pockets in our community. Some of those pockets include Somalis, some of them include our majority Caucasian community that is unvaccinated, and our biggest concern is those individuals who are unvaccinated are at greatest risk for getting measles.

Clare Roth: Help me understand how this fits into the larger landscape of health care access for Somali-Americans?

Mysheika Roberts: Well you know, I think that where we are right now currently as a country, we have great access to health care for our Somali-Americans. And I can tell you from working here at the health department as well as from talking to my peers and other health care agencies across town that the Somali population does access health care and they do use health care.

So the question is you know they might get recommendations or advice from their provider about getting the MMR vaccine or getting any vaccine for that matter and they might choose not to follow that recommendation from that provider.