A panel of health experts and opinion leaders spent nearly two hours at a Somali community forum Saturday night, trying to convince skeptics that the measles vaccine is safe and necessary.
But by the time it was over, there was little sign that anyone's minds had been changed. And a vaccine clinic, set up outside the meeting room at the Brian Coyle Center in Minneapolis, was still awaiting its first customer.
More than 50 people turned out for what was described as an educational forum prompted by the current measles outbreak in Hennepin County, which has sickened 11 people, including five Somali children, since February.
Dr. Abdirahman Mohamed, one of two Somali physicians on the panel, warned that families who don't vaccinate their children are putting their lives in danger. He said he knows of six Somali-American children who have caught measles and died during visits to Africa since 2008, including two children from Minnesota.
"There are parents who still resist the vaccine, unfortunately, because they're misinformed," said Mohamed, of the Axis Medical Center in Minneapolis.
He tried to dispel fears that the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine has been linked to autism. "It has been investigated, the vaccine and autism has absolutely no connection," he said. "There's something else causing autism, it's not MMR."
His message was echoed by officials from the state Health Department, Children's Hospital and a Muslim imam, who spoke of the importance of preventing potentially deadly diseases.
But Sofie Ali, one of the parents, said she believes her son's autism was triggered by the vaccine, and all the assurances did nothing to change that. "I know some of you may say it's not true, but I saw the truth," she said. "Nobody's talking about the children who are sick in our homes."
For several years, the Somali community has been shaken by reports of growing rates of autism, and vaccine rates have dropped as a result, health officials say. Several parents said the health experts simply haven't done enough to answer the autism threat.
"The community here has gotten our attention," Dr. Ed Ehlinger, the state health commissioner, said at the end of Saturday's forum. "Do we know the answer? No. Do we have the commitment to try to find the answers? Yes."
Maura Lerner • 612-673-7384