Voice of America's Somali service hosted a town hall Saturday in Minnesota, home to a large Somali-American population, to discuss a recent outbreak of measles in the state, and address rumors in the community surrounding childhood vaccines and autism.
The northern U.S. state of Minnesota is struggling with the biggest outbreak of measles in the state since 1990. Seventy-eight people caught the disease, mostly Somali-Americans, and nearly a third were hospitalized.
The panel, gathered to address concerns of parents, consisted of four Minnesota health officials, two of whom have children who have been diagnosed with autism. The town hall event, called Vaccine and Autism: Myths and Facts, was broadcast from the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School of Public Affairs. It could be watched on VOA Somali's Facebook page and YouTube channel.
Three audience members who addressed the panel raised questions regarding what they saw as a link between having their children vaccinated and those children later being diagnosed as autistic.
Panelist Dr. Mark Schleiss, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Minnesota Medical School, addressed one parent's concerns by saying the link is a "powerful coincidence."
"One of the challenges we have faced for many, many years is one of these disorders [autism] becomes apparent to parents about the time we give the vaccine to children," Schleiss said.
He called it a "powerful coincidence" that the signs of autism start to appear about the same age as when children receive some of their vaccinations. And "parents say there must be some timing to this," he added.
One Somali father said he took his child, whom he described as developing normally for his age, to receive his childhood vaccinations in 2004. He said the child had a seizure after the vaccination and months later was diagnosed with autism.
"It was the first time I heard the word," the father said.
Panelist Deeqa-Ifrah Hussein, the mother of an autistic child, is the founder of Parent's Autism Educational Resources. She said both of her children have received vaccinations. It was when she took her younger child, a son, for an 18-month checkup that she began to see the signs of autistic behavior. She told the audience that she did not relate the developmental signs to the child's vaccinations.
WATCH: Deeqa-Ifrah Hussein, founder of Parents Autism Educational Resources, discusses autism
At one time, Minnesota's Somali-American community — about 25,000 who live in Minneapolis and St. Paul and other surrounding cities — had the highest rates of vaccinations against measles, more than any other group in the state.
Patsy Stinchfield, a nurse in Minnesota, said she blamed the state’s measles outbreak on anti-vaccination groups.
Anti-vaccination groups believe that vaccines expose children to health risks and can cause harm, and have said that autism is caused by vaccinating children younger than 3.
“I would say almost exclusively the whole responsibility lands on the anti-vaccine movement,” she said to VOA via Skype, “and the reason is misinformation and myths spread about a link between MMR and autism, of which there is none, and science has proven that not to be true."
So while Somali-American parents continued getting their children vaccinated for other diseases, officials said the rates for receiving the MMR vaccine dropped dramatically.
Public outreach, community involvement
Once the outbreak began, the Minnesota Department of Health began working with members of the Somali community, such as imams, and began an outreach program to inform parents of the benefits of vaccinations and also to educate about the importance of early detection of the signs of autism.
Panelist Kristen Ehresmann, director of infectious diseases with the Minnesota Department of Health, said Somali-American parents quickly complied with public health requests, such as keeping children exposed to the measles virus from public interactions.
Ehresmann, who also has a son diagnosed with autism, said other communities have asked questions about the safety of vaccines, but the Somali-American community interaction has been more intense because of concerns about autism.
WATCH: Minnesota Dr. Afgarshe on research on vaccines, autism
Panelist Dr. Mohamud Dahir Afgarshe, director of the Gargar Clinic and Urgent Care in Minneapolis, said, "Somalis are coming from an entirely different culture. Coming to America and having kids with autism is a double burden for them. It is very hard for them to cope with it [autism]. It is very hard for them to learn how to cope with it. And it is very hard for them to get all the resources they need to cope with it."
Afgarshe said as a doctor, he reads research from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as in the New England Journal of Medicine. In all the studies he has read, "they have found no correlation between vaccination and autism," he said.
At the start of the town hall forum, Victor Makori, host of the VOA news program Africa 54, showed a video that discussed new autism research. He asked panelists for their views of the video.
Schleiss, the medical school professor, said, "We need more research on the causes of autism spectrum disorders. We need to understand why this is happening.
"One thing we worry about when we talk about vaccines — all of the resources and efforts and time and money that goes into proving what we already know to be true — that vaccines don't cause autism — those are dollars and resources that could be used for these kinds of studies that give us novel, new information," he said.
WATCH: Dr. Mark Schleiss on no correlation between vaccines, autism
Since Minnesota public health officials began their outreach into the Somali-American community, officials noted, more parents have been attending clinics to get their children vaccinated.
Stinchfield, the Minnesota nurse, said measles took the Somali-Americas by surprise.
“They did not think that measles would be in the United States,” she said, “and so the level of fear was greater for autism. This has now shifted, because the level of fear ... for measles is great because these families know measles. They’ve had loved ones die of measles in Somalia.”
Measles was wiped out in the U.S. 17 years ago, but outbreaks still happen when someone carries the virus back from a country where measles still circulates.
Fortunately, no one who caught measles in Minnesota has had any serious complications, and state officials are hoping to declare the outbreak over by the end of July.
VOA's Carol Pearson contributed to this article.