Hodan Hassan knows why some in the Minneapolis Somali community have feared vaccines. Her daughter Geni has autism, and Hassan once believed there might be a link between vaccines and the condition. But no more. Hassan is scheduled to speak at a Somali community forum on Saturday.

Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune

A mother's vaccine journey

  • Article by: MAURA LERNER
  • Star Tribune
  • March 25, 2011 - 9:06 PM

Hodan Hassan of Minneapolis understands why some parents are afraid to have their children vaccinated. Until recently, she was one of them.

But today, Hassan will be one of the featured speakers at a Somali community forum designed to allay fears about vaccines in the midst of a measles outbreak.

"[I] read about how the world used to be without the immunization program," said Hassan, who has four children, including a daughter with autism. "This generation doesn't understand the benefit, and the importance, and how lucky they are having an immunization program in place."

So far, 11 cases of measles have been confirmed in Hennepin County since February, five in Somali children who had not been vaccinated. Experts say that vaccine rates have dropped in the Somali community, along with other groups, because of unfounded fears of a possible link to autism.

Now, Somali physicians and state health officials have joined forces to counter what they say are widespread misconceptions about vaccine safety, which has left many children vulnerable to preventable diseases. The concern has grown in the last two years, since a Health Department study confirmed that there were an unusually high number of Somali children in the Minneapolis schools' autism program.

In Hassan's case, she stopped vaccinating her children after she learned that her daughter, Geni, now 6, had autism. At the time, she said, she was desperate for answers. Medical experts could not explain what caused her daughter's condition, a severe communication and behavior disorder. But she quickly learned about the autism activists who blame the vaccines, in spite of medical assurances to the contrary. She began reading their books and attending their conferences, she said, and the fear took hold.

In December, she said, she turned out to hear Andrew Wakefield, the hero of the anti-vaccine movement, at a Somali community meeting in Minneapolis. Wakefield conducted a now-discredited 1998 study suggesting a link between autism and the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine.

'I was shocked'

Later, Hassan said, a local doctor challenged her to do her own research on Wakefield, who was accused of scientific misconduct in connection with the study, and ultimately stripped of his medical license in England.

Now she is one of his biggest critics. "I was shocked when I found out people used to die [of measles]," she said. Many still do in her native Somalia, she noted, and in other in parts of the world where vaccines are not available.

"If we could all go back in time, we would have appreciated it," she said.

Just this week, Wakefield returned to Minneapolis for a private meeting with Somali families. Members of the news media were barred from Wednesday's gathering, which reportedly drew only about a half-dozen Somali parents.

But one of the organizers, Patti Carroll of Shoreview, said she doesn't believe parents are worried about the measles outbreak.

"They'd rather have them get the measles than deal with the effects of unsafe vaccines," said Carroll, a volunteer with Generation Rescue, an autism advocacy group.

Health officials warn that measles is highly contagious and extremely dangerous. So far, six people have been hospitalized in the current outbreak, most of them young children. All are said to be recovering.

This week, Hassan circulated an e-mail inviting members of the Somali community to tonight's forum at the Brian Coyle Center in Minneapolis.

"Our community has been misled about MMR causing autism," she wrote. "Vaccines don't cause autism and the benefit [outweighs] the risk." She added: "We are very much against an unlicensed doctor to make our community his scapegoat."

Maura Lerner • 612-673-7384

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