An outbreak of measles has hit Minnesota, leaving officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention scrambling to contain the disease.

Though measles is not typically fatal in the United States, it is highly contagious and can lead to other potentially fatal conditions and complications. The disease had all been eliminated in this country through vaccination, and Minnesota officials reported fewer than a dozen measles patients in that state during the previous decade.

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So why would there be an outbreak now? As Associated Press writer Steve Karnowski reported:

"Health officials struggling to contain a measles outbreak that's hit hard in Minneapolis' large Somali community are running into resistance from parents who fear the vaccine could give their children autism. Fourteen confirmed measles cases have been reported in Minnesota since February. Half have been in Somali children, six of whom were not vaccinated and one who was not old enough for shots."

Why in the world would parents fear vaccinating their children? Medical authorities trace it directly back to one man: Andrew Wakefield, the doctor whose 1998 research sparked international concern over whether childhood vaccines cause autism.

Last year, Wakefield was found guilty by a British panel of acting unethically in his research. Shortly afterward, The Lancet, which originally published his findings, reviewed his study and issued a complete retraction. Wakefield was then stripped of his license to practice medicine, and earlier this year the BMJ (formerly known as the British Medical Journal) called his actions "deliberate fraud."

Wakefield's research has been questioned for years, and repeated large-scale studies have found no evidence of any link between vaccines and autism. Still, Wakefield, who recently met with members of the Somali community affected by this latest outbreak, remains a hero to a small group of conspiracy theorists, including model Jenny McCarthy, who insist that vaccines can cause autism.

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Wakefield's actions have cost him his credibility, his medical license and his career. But the Minnesota children who remain hospitalized due to the unfounded fears Wakefield has spread may yet pay a much higher price.

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