To increase vaccine rates in the Somali community, messenger is more important than message.

By Sahra Noor, CEO

As a public health nurse and Somali-American mother of three children, I am deeply troubled by the continued outbreak of measles in Minnesota. 

As of May 17, Minnesota Department of Health reports 61 cases of measles in multiple counties in Minnesota, and most of them are unvaccinated Somali children. 

Although the outbreak is not limited to the Somali community in Minnesota, the persistent and aggressive campaign of anti-vaccine activists who are using their first world privilege to exploit the Somali community’s fears of autism is making containment of measles nearly impossible. 

This has significant consequences for all of us in Minnesota. We need creative outreach efforts and an all hands on deck approach to curtail the most unprecedented outbreak in Minnesota’s history. 

While it may be easy to blame parents who don’t vaccinate their children as irresponsible people who ignore scientific evidence and put their children and the public at risk, we have to keep in mind that these parents love their children.  However their fear of autism is so overwhelming that fact-based education and statistics is not enough. 

Fear is a powerful emotion and it takes strong relationships, empathy and trust between the community and health care providers to overcome it.

Parenting can be a very isolating, and sometimes frightening experience that is often complicated by the flood of information – sometimes helpful and instructive, sometimes false and misleading. 

Imagine being a new mother in a new country. Your healthcare provider speaks a different language, the community which supported you, and the family that raised you, are thousands of miles away. 

Now you are hearing frightening stories of children with severe autism and parents who swear their children were “perfect” before their first dose of MMR vaccine. 

Where do you go for trusted information for the newest, most precious and fragile member of your family? You go to people you trust: mothers, neighbors, sisters, aunts and grandparents. 

To contain this epidemic and prevent additional outbreaks, Somali parents must not be demonized or shamed. They need to be engaged in a meaningful dialogue about the benefits and risks of vaccines in a language they can understand. 

This is important because providers are often short on time and it can be difficult to determine what a parent may or may not know about vaccines during a fifteen minute visit. 

Somali parents’ concern of a link  between the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism may not be grounded in science, but it is pervasive among all Somalis.

A young Somali father recently told me: “When I refuse the MMR vaccine, I feel shamed by the doctors. They don’t realize that my head tells me the vaccine is safe, but my heart tells me not to take the chance.”

Those of us in healthcare are trained to talk to the head rather than the heart. It is time to change that. As parents wrestle with their decision to vaccinate or not, we must not be too quick to lecture or assume parents have been engaged in a conversation.

I was born and raised in Somalia. I strongly believe in the importance of vaccines and I vaccinate my children. We need to amplify the voices of parents like me and leverage Somali culture’s rich oral tradition to combat the false and dangerous messages of anti-vaccine activists. 

I am calling upon my public health colleagues to join me and think of new ways of engaging the community and create a supportive environment for Somali parents to get accurate information and education,  discuss  fears and risks openly in order to improve the health of their children, and our overall community.

People’s Center is positioned well to host dialogues, as a trusted healthcare organization that serves thousands of Somali parents each year.  In the next few weeks, we will partner with parents, health providers, community members, artists and religious leaders to  facilitate  open and honest dialogue about a path forward and a solution to end this crisis situation. 

We don’t have to agree on what is best for children, but we do need to listen to each other. Our children’s lives depend on it. 

Sahra Noor is CEO of People’s Center Health Services 

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