Dr. Andrew Wakefield, a controversial British doctor whose research purported to link vaccines to autism, met privately with a gathering of Somali parents in Minneapolis on Wednesday night.

Wakefield, who arrived amid the city's first measles outbreak in years, declined to answer questions about the purpose of his visit. Reporters were barred from the meeting, which was described as a "support group" for parents of autistic children.

Health officials say that vaccination rates have been dropping in the Somali community because of fears about vaccine safety, fueled by Wakefield's now-discredited research.

As of Wednesday, 11 measles cases have been confirmed in Hennepin County since February, at least three among unvaccinated children in the Somali community in Minneapolis. Local and state health officials are planning a forum for Somali immigrants Saturday to discuss the measles outbreak and the need to vaccinate children.

Patti Carroll, an organizer of Wednesday's meeting at the Safari restaurant, said that Wakefield is helping to build support for a study about rising autism rates in the Somali community. She said this is his third visit to Minnesota since December. Wakefield, who was stripped of his medical license in Britain for scientific misconduct, continues to defend his research.

One parent who attended Wednesday's meeting said she was hoping to find out why autism appears to be on the increase among Somali kids. "We need to get to the bottom of what is going on with our children," said Idil Abdull, head of the Somali-American Autism Foundation, which wasn't involved in organizing the event.

Maura Lerner • 612-673-7384