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Even After A Massive Measles Outbreak, Minnesota Skeptics Fight Vaccines

Social media makes everything worse—especially the anti-vaxx movement.

Anti-vaccine activists in Minnesota are holding playdates for unvaccinated children to interact with kids infected with measles, in a misguided attempt to “build up their natural resistance”, Facebook discussions reveal. The news that parents are continuing to expose vulnerable children to so-called “measles parties” (despite the fact that measles can be deadly) is disheartening, especially since Minnesota recently saw just what happens when parents don’t vaccine their kids. Last spring, Minnesota anti-vaxers singlehandedly caused the largest measles outbreak in the U.S. since 2015.

“I’m shocked by how emboldened they’ve gotten,” Karen Ernst, executive director of Voices for Vaccines, told the Washington Post. “I think most people thought the anti-vaccine voices would sit home and lay low [after the 2017 Minnesota outbreak]…Instead, they became more public, they did more outreach.”

Before the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine made its debut in 1963, 500 children died each year from measles infections—among four million yearly cases and 48,000 hospitalizations. It was not the sort of disease you’d want your kid to get at a measles party. But when disgraced (former) doctor Andrew Wakefield published a fraudulent study in 1998 linking the MMR vaccine to autism—a link that has since been disproven by hundreds of studies—the anti-vaccine movement came to the fore. Naturally, as parents opted out of vaccines measles roared back into existence with impunity, infecting the unfortunate children of 660 smug anti-vaxxers in 2014, and claiming one life in 2015.

That context is necessary in order to understand just how ridiculous the following quote is: “Unlike the Department of Health and many doctors, we don’t tell people what to do,” The Minnesota Vaccine Freedom Coalition recently wrote on Facebook, presumably defending every parent’s right to start epidemics that occasionally kill kids. “We are about informed consent—sharing scientific data and Minnesota laws so citizens know THEY have choices and the right to make them.” Never mind that none of the anti-vaccine propaganda they share is remotely scientific or data-driven.

Given the direction that Minnesota is heading, there could be more outbreaks on the horizon. The state has already netted 79 documented cases in 2017—more than the national total for 2016. Twenty-two people have been hospitalized. Meanwhile, public health officials are dumbfounded that vaccine skeptics remain unmoved. “I don’t think the outbreak has slowed them down at all,” Kris Ehresmann, director of the infectious disease division for the Minnesota Department of Health told the Post. Activists are “definitely are upping their outreach on the political spectrum.”

Unfortunately, if there’s one thing scientists have learned about anti-vaxxers (and conspiracy theorists in general), it’s that they’re a tough nut to crack. Explaining the data and discrediting Wakefield is simply not an effective way to win hearts and minds. But one study published in PNAS suggests that an emotional play may be more effective. The study found that, after 315 vaccine skeptics read a testimonial from a parent who rushed her kid to the ER with the measles and saw images of the long-term effects of the disease, some of them actually changed their minds.

The findings gave us (somewhat gruesome) hope—that it may take an outbreak, or a few hospitalizations, before parents abandon their anti-vaccine positions, but seeing is believing. Minnesota has proven the exception to that rule.