In the midst of the second measles outbreak in the state in six years, Somali immigrants in Minnesota have found themselves caught between a manipulative anti-vaxxer movement and rising anti-immigrant activism in right-wing politics. More than 40 cases of the measles have been reported in the state, home to the largest Somali population in the U.S., in the past month. Unvaccinated Somali-American children make up the vast majority of those afflicted so far.
The anti-vaxxer streak in Minnesotan Somali communities began around 2008, when parents began expressing worries about the disproportionate number of Somali children in special-education classes. A University of Minnesota study found that Somali children were slightly more likely than white children—and considerably more likely than the general population—to be diagnosed on the autism spectrum. Somali children with autism were significantly more likely to develop intellectual disabilities than autistic children in any other racial or ethnic group.
Because the causes of autism are unknown, there are no satisfactory answers for Somali parents concerned about the wellbeing of their current and future children. Public-health officials say it could be just a “statistical fluke,” as can be the case with clusters of other noncontagious conditions. Other floated explanatory theories, like genetic predisposition, vitamin D deficiency, and intermarriage all fall short of justifying the gap. Communities began calling autism “the American disease,” because there’s no Somali word for autism and the condition is not recognized in Somalia.
Anti-vaxxer activists happily seized on this worry and doubt. Andrew Wakefield, whose medical license was revoked after it was revealed that his notorious 1998 “study” connecting autism and vaccines was falsified, visited Minnesota for town-hall meetings with Somali parents. J.B. Handley, a leader of an anti-vaxxer organization, wrote an open letter to Somali Minnesotans, calling the Minnesota Department of Health “nothing more than a puppet for the Centers for Disease Control.” “I’m personally embarrassed for our country to see the behavior of these people, but they are simply acting out many universal human traits of denial, corruption, and self-protection,” he wrote of health department officials. “So, Somali parents, it is time to take matters into your own hands.”
And they did. In 2004, the Minnesota Department of Health reported, 92 percent of Somali-American children in the state had gotten the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine. Around 2008, vaccination rates in that population started dropping each year. Now, less than half of Minnesotan children of Somali descent have gotten the MMR vaccine.
“The Somalis had decided themselves that they were particularly concerned. I was responding to that,” Wakefield told the Washington Post in an interview about the recent measles outbreak. “I don’t feel responsible at all.”
Right-wing agitators aren’t blaming Wakefield and other anti-vaxxers, either. They’re pointing fingers at Barack Obama, the Muslim faith, and anyone who has countered Donald Trump’s efforts to keep refugees and immigrants from entering the United States.
This measles outbreak, conservatives argue, is evidence of the threat refugees pose to the nation. Writers on right-wing websites, with headlines like “Muslim Parents Refuse To Vaccinate Children” and “Quran Blamed In New U.S. Disease Outbreak,” are advancing erroneous claims that Islam forbids followers from vaccinating their children. One Breitbart piece on measles in Minnesota emphasizes the fact that most Minnesotan Somalis are Muslim, then lays down several non sequiturs: the percentage of Minnesota tuberculosis cases contracted by Somalis; the practice of female genital mutilation; and the violent crimes committed by two random Somali refugees in two different states. Another Breitbart joint wonders whether the person who brought the disease to the community, likely from a foreign country where measles is still prevalent, might have been stopped by Trump’s proposed travel ban.
Epidemiologists believe the 2011 Minnesota measles outbreak was started by a Somali-Minnesotan child who visited Kenya; Trump’s ban would not have prevented that kid from returning home. But there’s an even better reason for right-wingers to shift the direction of their blame. Donald Trump has actively encouraged anti-vaxxer activists, giving them an amplified public platform and promising to include their propagators in White House public-health discussions. Wakefield, one of the people who brought anti-vaxxer propaganda to Somali Minnesotans, met with Trump at a donor event during the president’s campaign, where he reportedly told Wakefield and his friends that he would advance their cause when elected. Trump told a reporter in 2007 that his “theory” on growing autism rates was “the shots.” In a Republican primary debate in 2015, he said on national TV that he knew a “beautiful” 2-year-old child who “went to have the vaccine, and came back, and a week later got a tremendous fever, got very, very sick, now is autistic.” He proudly proclaims that he vaccinated Barron on a “slow” schedule, an anti-science approach that perpetuates myths about shots. Once Trump won the election, he asked notorious vaccine skeptic activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. to chair a commission on “vaccine safety and scientific integrity.”
Other U.S. outbreaks of preventable 19th-century diseases have been traced to wealthy communities in states such as California, where permissive laws allow parents to send their kids to school without proof of vaccination. There, unvaccinated rates have climbed in certain areas along with the ascension of anti-vaxxer activism, not due to any influx of refugees or Muslim immigrants. Right-wingers concerned about measles should look to the anti-science sect and their own hero in the Oval Office, not Islam, for an explanation of the current situation in Minnesota. But they won’t, since logic has no place in racist ideology. Somali-American kids, then, will be victimized twice: once by a movement that manipulated concerned parents out of giving them proper medical care, and again by the president’s Islamophobic cronies, who cast children as threats to their own country.