Why is Minnesota experiencing the worst measles outbreak in nearly 30 years?

MN measles outbreak
MN measles outbreak 03:48

Health officials in Minnesota are tackling the worst measles outbreak in nearly 30 years. Most of those with the disease are unvaccinated Somali-American children in the state, which has the largest Somali population in the country.

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Minnesota's health commissioner says the community has been targeted with misinformation about vaccine risks.

At Children's Minnesota, doctors are treating 34 of the state's 48 confirmed cases. Because measles is incredibly contagious, everyone who enters the hospital is provided a mask. If you don't have the vaccine that prevents measles, there's a 90 percent chance that you'll contract the virus, reports CBS News correspondent Jamie Yuccas.

Patsy Stinchfield is the director for infection control at Children's Minnesota Hospital. She said the measles outbreak started about four weeks ago.

"We have gone zero days without having a new case," Stinchfield said. Forty-six of the 48 confirmed cases are in children 10 years old or younger.

"I just finished doing rounds on these children and they are miserable. They're in the hospital, they have IV's, they're not drinking, they have terrible coughs, some have pneumonia," Stinchfield said.

The measles virus commonly travels through the air where it can live for up to two hours, making it more contagious than the flu. The only vaccine available in the U.S. to prevent the spread of the disease is the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine, or MMR.

"One in a thousand children who get measles will have encephalitis or infection in the brain. They can have permanent brain damage. They can have blindness or deafness, and so we wouldn't vaccinate if this was just a rash or illness – this is a very serious disease," Stinchfield said.

In 2014, almost 90 percent of 2-year-old Minnesota children were vaccinated against measles. In the Somali community, that number plummeted to about 40 percent. 

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Community leader Abdirizak Bihi said it's because of an unfounded fear spawned by anti-vaccine activists that MMR causes autism.

"Some parents… they said at least measles is curable… because they believe that thing is causing autism and they don't have a choice," Bihi said.

Ikram Mohamed is a Somali-American mother of five children. Four have received the MMR vaccine, but she waited until they were older, even after getting measles herself. Mohamed doesn't plan to vaccinate her 5-year-old until he starts school in the fall.

"There is this big decision to make. Are you going to choose to take the risk to vaccinate and get this long-term chronic illness? Or are you going to take the risk of trying to do everything that you can in your power to prevent your child from getting the measles? And that's a very hard choice," Mohamed said.

Doctors say false information linking vaccines to autism is hurting children.

"Do you get frustrated that this misinformation still is out there?" Yuccas asked Stinchfield.

"It is frustrating," Stinchfield responded, "because we know these diseases are contagious, they can spread, they can take children's lives and all we have to do is go back to before we had vaccines where the United States had four million cases of measles… and we will go back there if we don't continue to vaccinate."

Scientific studies have shown there is no direct correlation between the MMR vaccine and increased risk in autism, even among children considered at high risk for the disorder. Minnesota state health officials expect the outbreak to last for months and say the epidemic can't be declared over until six weeks pass with no new reported cases.