Somali Health Workers Strive to Educate During Measles Outbreak

June 13, 2017 09:19 AM

The measles epidemic in Minnesota is now at 76 cases. It's been growing in the last several weeks, but one nurse believes it's going to take the messenger as well as the message to prevent another case. 

Nasra Hassan visited People's Center Health Services, which serves the West Bank community, for a routine checkup with 1-year-old Yazim and 14-year-old Mohamed. Yazim and Mohamed are two of Nasra's 11 children. Routine visits to the clinic are part and parcel of her life. 


Nasra saw pediatric nurse Deb Olson and gave her a big hug. 

Olson asked Nasra, "Have you been around anybody with active tuberculosis or measles?" 

It's a question that's become more than routine these days. The Minnesota Department of Health said 64 of the 76 measles cases are Somali children. 

"All my children got all the shots," Nasra said. "I don't have any problems, but I heard on the news, and in our community, and I'm really scared." 

Nasra said all the parents she knows are worried the measles shot will give their children autism, but doctors said that fear isn't based on science. 

"The issue of fear is so powerful," said Sahra Noor, CEO of People's Center. 

RELATED: Number of Measles Cases Rises to 76

Noor is also a Somali mother. She said parents often tell her they are demonized or shamed when they decline the vaccine. She said her conversation with one father was a powerful window into the fear that paralyzes parents.

"The Somali father is a scientist," Noor said. "He said to me, 'That's a matter of head over heart.' As a scientist, I know there's no proof, but my heart is telling me don't even take the chance." 

Noor said most Somali parents are getting the message about vaccinating their children. 

"If you ask any Somali, whether they are doctors or the person that just arrived from the refugee camp, they know that the Department of Health has said there's no link (between measles and autism). They don't believe it. They are not buying it," she said. 

Noor said Somali parents are worried that instances of autism are higher in their community, and they don't see any research studying the reasons. 

Noor said most Somali parents are vaccinating their children and that they've traditionally had high rates of vaccinations. 

She said the answer to the measles crisis is inside the Somali community. 

"We need Somali providers to speak up, we need Somali parents to speak up, we need religious leaders to speak up and policy makers who look like us to speak up. Once we own the issue, it's easier to solve," Noor said. 

She believes Somali parents need to talk to their health care providers. Noor said vaccinations are more important for her community because many Somalis travel to visit relatives in Somalia. There are widespread measles outbreaks there as a result of famine.

Nasra decided to give her baby, Nazim, the measles vaccine on her visit, but she knows other mothers may not. 

People's Center staff are putting together a plan to reach Somali parents right after Ramadan in July. Noor said she's recruiting Somali health care providers, parents who have vaccinated their children and other community leaders to talk to parents and their family members. 

Noor also wrote a blog post about this topic on the People's Center website. You can find it here.

Members of the Somali Minnesotan community seeking more information on the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine can find it in the following places:

People's Center Health Services, network of Federally Qualified Health Clinics, is located in South Minneapolis.

Isuroon is a woman-led, community-driven organization in the Somali community.


Farrah Fazal

Copyright 2017 - KSTP-TV, LLC A Hubbard Broadcasting Company


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