The Age of Autism: Rep. wants Amish study

By DAN OLMSTED, United Press International  |  July 19, 2005 at 11:45 PM
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A U.S. Congressman who is a medical doctor said Tuesday he will seek funding to study the autism rate among the largely unvaccinated Amish.

"I want to get somebody to do a study on that community," Rep. Dave Weldon, R-Fla., told United Press International. "I would like to get funding and have somebody go into the Amish community and do a survey."

The head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Tuesday, however, that an Amish study would not yield useful information.

Weldon's comments came in response to a UPI investigation that found an apparently low level of autism among the Amish. Some parents of children with autism believe that a mercury-based preservative in vaccines called thimerosal caused the disorder, so looking at the autism rate among a group of unvaccinated children would test that theory.

"The reason it's very intriguing," Weldon said, "is you go into the Amish country and you've got Amish people and non-Amish people and they sort of live among each other.

"So it would be very easy to go into villages and do samplings and look at not only autism, but at ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) and ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), and then go into the surrounding non-Amish and look at the autism rates."

Weldon made his remarks following a news briefing by federal health officials and doctors, at which they reiterated the safety and importance of childhood immunizations. They noted that thimerosal had been phased out of childhood vaccinations beginning in 1999.

Dr. Julie Gerberding, the CDC director, said scientific studies do not show a link between thimerosal and autism.

Asked by UPI whether the government had studied the autism rate in a never-vaccinated population, she replied that it is difficult to find such groups because the U.S. vaccination rate is so high. Also, she said, "It's very, very difficult to get an effective numerator and denominator and to get a reliable diagnosis."

She also said, however, that parents have been pushing for faster research and "I think those kind of studies could be done and should be done." She suggested that the Amish are not the right group.

"You have to adjust for the strong genetic component that also distinguishes, for example, people in Amish communities who may elect not to be immunized. To draw any conclusions from them would be difficult," Gerberding said.

Weldon responded that the isolated gene pool in the Amish community would not invalidate a study because autism is not solely a genetic disorder.

"That's operating under the assumption that it's all genetic," he said of Gerberding's comments. Weldon, a critic of the CDC's handling of autism research, said a strong outside factor is evidently at work because the number of autism cases has exploded in the past decade.

"You would just look at the incidence," he said of an Amish study. "If you can find say, a thousand (Amish) families with, say, an average of four children, that's four thousand kids and their autism rate is say, X.

"Then you do a sampling in the surrounding community with the same age match and controls, and (if you find) the incidences are 3X or 4X, that would be a valuable piece of information that we could potentially publish" in a scientific journal.

"I don't know if you could generate a statistically significant sample, but at least you could get some information that might point in that direction."

Weldon did not say how he would seek to fund such a study, but he is a member of the powerful House Appropriations Committee. Last month, a top HHS official told a parents' group that he would consider whether to fund such a study through the National Institutes of Health, and several sources told UPI that independent research scientists are now considering similar studies.

Weldon attended the news conference at the Health and Human Services building in Washington as a spectator. Afterwards, reporters spent more time interviewing him than they did the health officials, in part because there was little time for questions and in part because the officials offered no new information.

Reporters suggested that the briefing was called to overshadow a rally at the Capitol Wednesday at which parents will back Weldon's bill to remove thimerosal from all medical products; on Tuesday, Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., introduced a companion bill in the Senate.

An ABC television reporter asked the first question at the HHS briefing: "I'm wondering why we're all here today. I'm not hearing any new information."

"We're here to talk on an issue that we do receive questions on," a spokesman said, but did not directly deny that the briefing had been timed to head off the parents' group.

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E-mail: dolmsted@upi.com

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