At The Independent, Andrew Buncombe reports on Minnesota's efforts to improve vaccination rates among the state's Somali population. Measles had erupted after Wakefield convinced Somalis that vaccines cause autism.
“The biggest impact is connecting a condition that is one that challenges any parent who has a child with autism, and connecting that to immunisations, and specifically MMR,” Lynn Bahta, the immunisation clinical consultant with the Minnesota Department of Health (MDOH), told The Independent last summer as it fought to tackle the outbreak.
“Among our Somali American community we have their rates go from 92 per cent, which was higher than non-Somali rates, down to 42 per cent. And that puts them in a very, very vulnerable position.”
To help the state get its message delivered most effectively, officials asked for help from community leaders, in particular imams, who lead prayers at neighbourhood mosques.
Bahta said they told them that the MDOH does not believe that the information being given to them by Wakefield and others was true. She said the community was particularly vulnerable as it already believed there was a higher rate of autism among Somali American boys, something officials in the state say is not supported by data. In the end, more than 30 agreed to help.
“The imams are very concerned about their community and they are very willing to work with us in whatever way they can. They have appreciated the information that we have been able to give them about the outbreak and what they can do as spiritual leaders of the community,” Bahta said.
She said the imams provided officials with direct access to the community. In addition, she said the imams could “bring disease and prevention of disease within the context of their faith. That is something that we don’t have the words for, but they do”.
One of the imams who was central to the state’s response to the outbreak was Sharif Abdirahman, the Muslim leader at the Dar al Hijrah mosque in the Cedar-Riverside neighbourhood of Minneapolis. He said he was able to appeal to people using both religion and science. He could also appeal as a parent.
“Islam is a religion of expertise,” he said, sat in the second-floor office of the community centre that also contains a mosque.
“Verses in the Quran say ... if you don’t a know subject ask the advice of people who know the subject very well.”