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The Age of Autism: The Amish Elephant

By DAN OLMSTED, UPI Senior Editor   |   Oct. 29, 2005 at 2:34 PM
A specter is haunting the medical and journalism establishments of the United States: Where are the unvaccinated people with autism?

That is just about the only way to explain what now appears to be a collective resistance to considering that question. And like all unanswered questions, this raises another one: Why?

What is the problem with quickly and firmly establishing that the autism rate is about the same everywhere and for everybody in the United States, vaccinated or unvaccinated? Wouldn't that stop all the scientifically illiterate chatter by parents who believe vaccinations made their children autistic? Wouldn't it put to rest concerns that -- despite the removal of a mercury-containing preservative in most U.S. vaccines -- hundreds of millions of children in the developing world are possibly at risk if that preservative is in fact linked to autism?

Calling this issue The Amish Elephant reflects reporting earlier this year in Age of Autism that the largely unvaccinated Amish may have a relatively low rate of autism. That apparent dissimilarity is, in effect, a proverbial elephant in the living room -- studiously ignored by people who don't want to deal with it and don't believe they will have to.

Here are a few cases in point.

Earlier this month the National Consumers League conference in Washington held a session on communicating issues around vaccine safety. I was on the panel and talked about the Amish and autism. In the Q&A session that followed, the first question was for me.

"Is this a proper role for a journalist, or is this just a straw dog set up there with a preliminary answer? It not only showed up where you wrote it. It was all over the place. You did very, very well for UPI (at which point I said, 'Thank you -- please tell my bosses that!') but the question is, did you do very, very well for America?

"Is it appropriate for a journalist -- you weren't reporting, you were investigating. And I just wonder if you think it's an appropriate role for you to play."

My answer: "There's different roles for the press. That's certainly a reasonable question. That is investigative reporting. This idea is something that's already been discarded -- that there's any reason why you would want to look in an unvaccinated population.

"One of my favorite comments about journalism is that it's the wild card of American democracy. The First Amendment says we can do (in the sense of reporting about) whatever we want. So one of our privileges is to get an idea in our head and go look at it."

My questioner was not finished. "I wasn't questioning whether you have a First Amendment right to do it. I think this is more of a question of the ethics, of what value we are bringing to the debate."

My response: "That's probably not a good one for me to answer. Obviously I thought it was ethical."

At that point a fellow panelist, Dr. Louis Cooper, former president of the American Academy of Pediatrics and a staunch vaccine defender, spoke up. "I would jump in and say I thought it was ethical and I think it was useful," said Cooper, a courtly and unfailingly courteous Manhattan pediatrician.

"As you've learned, it was annoying to many people. I wasn't annoyed by it because I thought you kept the process and the debate and the discussion going forward. And we have to do that for one another."

That did not end the discussion. A few minutes later a public-health professor from -- where else? Harvard -- did her own version of Jeopardy!, offering the correct "answer" in the form of a question.

"This question is for Dan. Did you mention the outbreak of polio that happened in the Amish community in the Netherlands that caused widespread problems there, and also the fact that there'd been some context with respect to history in our country in trying to reach out to the Amish to actually encourage them to try to benefit from some of the vaccine technology to the extent that we could?

"So there's been a long history in this country of the CDC trying to reach out to them to the extent that they could. Also with respect to polio, I think what's really amazing is it's such a great story, this is such an exciting time, in the sense that we are very close to global eradication. What that means is we've gone from 1988 when we had 350,000 estimated paralytic polio cases in the world every year to roughly a thousand. It's very exciting that in fact we don't have the terror or the hysteria and all of the fear that surrounded disease.

"I just want to remind everyone that one thing that's very important in the context of reporting these stories is making sure that people do remember and also realize with infectious disease is these things can come back, and until they are eradicated they can come back and devastate us just as much as they did before, except now there are a lot more people.

"There's some related news that people might find interesting. A headline in the Washington Post today, 'Polio outbreak occurs among Amish families.' So I thought people might be interested in that."

At that point the moderator, Dr. Roger Bernier of the Centers for Disease Control, said time was getting short -- why was I not surprised? -- and asked for the next "question."

One thing I've noticed is the more that people want to lecture instead of learn, the more they speak in breathless run-on sentences that are hard to stop, slow down or even diagram. They leave one with the unspoken idea that dialogue -- opening the door to new information -- is somehow dangerous.

These exchanges reminded me of the response I got from Dr. Julie Gerberding, the CDC director, when I asked her this summer, verbatim: "Has the government ever looked at the autism rate in an unvaccinated U.S. population, and if not, why not?"

Her answer, verbatim:

--

In this country, we have very high levels of vaccination as you probably know, and I think this year we have record immunization levels among all of our children, so to (select an unvaccinated group) that on a population basis would be representative to look at incidence in that population compared to the other population would be something that could be done.

But as we're learning, just trying to look at autism in a community the size of Atlanta, it's very, very difficult to get an effective numerator and denominator to get a reliable diagnosis.

I think those kind of studies could be done and should be done. You'd have to adjust for the strong genetic component that also distinguishes, for example, people in Amish communities who may elect not to be immunized (and) also have genetic connectivity that would make them different from populations that are in other sectors of the United States. So drawing some conclusions from them would be very difficult.

I think with reference to the timing of all of this, good science does take time, and it's part of one of the messages I feel like I've learned from the feedback that we've gotten from parents groups this summer (in) struggling with developing a more robust and a faster research agenda, is let's speed this up. Let's look for the early studies that could give us at least some hypotheses to test and evaluate and get information flowing through the research pipeline as quickly as we can.

So we are committed to doing that, and as I mentioned, in terms of just measuring the frequency of autism in the population some pretty big steps have been taken. We're careful not to jump ahead of our data, but we think we will be able to provide more accurate information in the next year or so than we've been able to do up to this point. And I know that is our responsibility.

We've also benefited from some increased investments in these areas that have allowed us to do this, and so we thank Congress and we thank the administration for supporting those investments, not just at CDC but also at NIH and FDA.

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The latest response to my pesky persistence comes not from academia or government but from my own profession. Last week the prestigious Columbia Journalism Review published an article whose main thrust -- with which I concur -- was that a vigorous debate over a possible link between vaccines and autism was being thwarted by the self-induced timidity of the press.

Some reporters told the author, Daniel Schulman, that they have basically given up on the story because the criticism -- some of it from their own editors -- was so fierce, and the story was so complicated.

Schulman described Age of Autism's efforts to come at the issue "sideways," looking for possible clues to the cause of the disorder in the natural history of autism. And he mentioned our reporting on the Amish:

"Privately, two reporters told me that, while intriguing, Olmsted's reporting on the Amish is misguided, since it may simply reflect genetic differences among an isolated gene pool. ... Both reporters believed that Olmsted has made up his mind on the question and is reporting the facts that support his conclusions."

Ouch. Being slammed by one's peers is never enjoyable, although reporters need to have thick skins and realize they dish this kind of thing out every day. (And those anonymous sources really are annoying, especially when I am happy to be quoted by name about everything.)

What's interesting about the reporters' "private" remarks is the degree of presumed expertise they suggest -- that looking at the Amish is misguided "since it may simply reflect genetic differences among an isolated gene pool." Really? Where did these guys get their doctorate in genetics, Harvard?

This assertion -- that the Amish gene pool could explain everything, based on no data that I'm aware of -- is the kind of self-interested speculation masquerading as expertise that has beset the autism-vaccines discussion for far too long. The term I learned for it long ago is "convenient reasoning," and it does not always have to be conscious.

The Amish have all kinds of standard genetic mental and developmental disorders -- from bipolar to retardation -- and a lot more genetic issues to boot from this supposedly protective "isolated gene pool." The doctors who actually know something about the Amish have never suggested to me that genes have anything to do with a low rate of autism. They seem perplexed.

In upcoming columns, we'll put that question to the right people -- geneticists -- and tell you what we find. It's called reporting.

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This ongoing series on the roots and rise of autism welcomes reader response. E-mail: dolmsted@upi.com

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