An anti-vaccination advocate told a crowd of Somali-Americans in Minneapolis on Sunday that they should weigh the risks and benefits before having their children vaccinated for measles.
The Twin Cities is in the midst of a measles outbreak affecting three counties, mainly Hennepin, with 28 of the 32 cases reported so far affecting Somali-American children who have not been vaccinated.
But the nonprofit Vaccine Safety Council of Minnesota held a meeting on Sunday featuring keynote speaker Mark Blaxhill, cofounder of Health Choice, who according to the Star Tribune told the crowd the danger of measles is exaggerated and the government has lied in previous vaccine research.
He believes there are links between vaccines and autism, despite research by the medical industry finding otherwise. Nonetheless he told the mostly-Somali audience at the Lake Street ballroom that they should make their own decision about vaccinating their kids.
"We simply do not know all of the possible negative side effects of these vaccines as a collective group of immunizations," he said KSTP reports, adding that "bullying" government agencies target new immigrants to feel like they have no choice but to go along with an immunization schedule that is "too many and too soon."
MPR News reports among those also attending on Sunday was Dr. Michael Osterholm, head of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota who was the state's epidemiologist in when a 1990 measles outbreak sickened 460 Minnesotans and killed three.
"This is a very serious situation," he said. "And when I watch what I saw tonight, and I see these people preying on a community that wants answers, I find this just abysmal. It's the worst of human behavior."
MPR notes the vaccination rate among Minnesota's Somali-American 2-year-olds is currently just 42 percent, with the rate starting to fall a decade ago when reports suggested there was a higher-than-average incidence of autism among Somali students in Minneapolis.
What anti-vaxxers say about the MMR/autism link
According to PublicHealth, the belief that the MMR vaccine causes autism stems back to a piece for British medical journal The Lancet written by the surgeon Andrew Wakefield in 1997.
And an explosion in the number of children being diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder over the past 30-40 years (it was 1 in 2,000 in the 1970s and '80s and 1 in 150 now) has given rise to so-called "anti-vaxxers" who argue that excessive vaccinations is contributing to higher autism rates.
Anti-vaccination website Age of Autism argues a "delayed or less aggressive vaccination schedule would reduce the autism rate significantly."
This view, it argues, is shared by "far too many parents, families, and an increasing number of independent journalists and medical professionals" who "know the truth" but aren't being listened to because "that threatens many powerful interests and comfortable orthodoxies."
The Vaccine Safety Council of Minnesota's page on the MMR vaccine can be found here, and argues that the immunization has led to serious brain damage in hundreds of cases, and the risk of this is greater than what it considers the unlikely chance a child will die from measles.
In 2008, the anti-vaxxer movement was boosted when Sen. John McCain said there's "strong evidence" that mercury-based preservative in childhood vaccines is responsible for increased autism diagnoses in the U.S., as reported by ABC News.
This came after the federal government gave compensation to the family of a 9-year-old girl with autism whose parents argued it was the result of vaccines. However, as CNN reported, the court case found the vaccine aggravated an underlying illness, encephalopathy, that led to symptoms of autism, rather than causing the symptoms directly.
What medical experts say
The MMR/autism argument is not backed by medical experts working in the field of autism, who say an overwhelming body of research into vaccinations and autism have not found any links.
"The results of this research is clear: Vaccines do not cause autism," according to Autism Speaks, noting that many anti-vaxxers make a link because for some the timing of an autism diagnosis coincides with their child's vaccination schedule.
This view is shared by public health organizations including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and The American Academy of Pediatrics, among many others.
In Minnesota, the Department of Health told GoMN it is basing its recommendations that unvaccinated children over the age of 12 months should get the MMR vaccine as a matter of urgency "on a wealth of scientific evidence."
"That evidence, from more than 20 studies conducted in multiple countries by different researchers, indicates no link between autism and vaccines," the health department said.
PublicHealth also counters the argument that children can't handle so many vaccinations at once, saying the 14 scheduled vaccines children get would only use up 0.1 percent of the baby's immune capacity even if they were all given at once.
Speaking to WebMD, University of Miami Miller associate professor of pediatrics Dr. Lee Sanders said the benefits of vaccines far outweigh the risks, but he said he understands where concerns from parents come from, noting they are bombarded with information "that can take a life of its own online."
With the concepts around scientific testing difficult to understand, he says it's difficult to separate good science from bad and there will continue to be a debate until scientists can absolutely prove what causes autism.
LiveSciences writes there is strong evidence that faulty genes can lead to autism, but also points that pesticide use, the use of certain pharmaceuticals during pregnancy, and the age of the mother when giving birth could also be factors in autism diagnoses.