The measles outbreak in Minnesota's Somali community caught the attention of the Voice of America news network, which on Saturday broadcast a town hall forum in Minneapolis to listeners from North America to East Africa.
The forum was designed to explore many Somalis' fears that childhood vaccinations cause autism and to provide answers to parents' questions. It drew a crowd to the U's Humphrey School of Public Affairs where people questioned the panel of medical experts' arguments that vaccines weren't responsible for the autism in their community. Studies have repeatedly disproved any link between autism and vaccines.
"I have a child who was normal when I took him to the doctor," said Sofia Osman of New Brighton, one of the parents with an autistic child who addressed the panel. "We have videos … You don't need research. Ask us!"
But Minnesota medical professionals such as Dr. Mohamed Dahir Afgarshe said research doesn't show any link between autism and vaccines. There's a vaccination program in Somalia, he added, but it hasn't been associated with anything like autism.
The town hall forum, titled Vaccine & Autism: Myths and Facts, was broadcast live on radio and TV for a VOA news program called Africa 54, said Vincent Makori, the program's Washington, D.C.-based editor. The Voice of America is a U.S. government-sponsored news source that reaches an audience of more than 200 million a week.
The vaccination issue is being watched not just in Minnesota, but in Somalia, Kenya and other countries with large Somali communities such as England and Ethiopia, he said. The program, half in English and half in Somali, was broadcast in the United States and East Africa, he said.
The forum comes in response to Minnesota's worst measles outbreaks in decades, with about 80 cases reported so far this year. The majority were among unvaccinated preschool children, most in the Somali community.
Deeqa-Ifrah Hussein, the founder of Parents Autism Educational Resources, was a speaker on the panel. She told the roughly 150 Somalis in the audience that she had two children who received vaccinations for measles, mumps and rubella. One has autism. One doesn't.
The fear of vaccines "is a starting point for doctors, for the parents, for educators," she said. Parents have the right to be concerned for the safety of their children and also the right to resources to help them.
The suspicions over vaccines were on the rise before the measles outbreak. Vaccination rates for Somali 2-year-olds were as high as 92 percent in 2004 but have dropped to 42 percent today, health officials have reported.
Abdirisak Jama, a parent who addressed the panel, thinks that is a good thing. He said his son was developing normally when he was vaccinated in 2004, but came down with seizures immediately afterward. He was later diagnosed with autism.
The first half of the 90-minute forum was held in English, the second half in Somali. It's part of ongoing efforts by Minnesota health professionals to work with the Somali community on the delicate issue.