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Dan Olmsted: Age of Autism Index

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Wednesday, December 07, 2005

The Age of Autism: 'A pretty big secret'

UPI Senior Editor

CHICAGO, Dec. 7 (UPI) -- It's a far piece from the horse-and-buggies of
Lancaster County, Pa., to the cars and freeways of Cook County, Ill.

But thousands of children cared for by Homefirst Health Services in
metropolitan Chicago have at least two things in common with thousands of
Amish children in rural Lancaster: They have never been vaccinated. And
they don't have autism.

"We have a fairly large practice. We have about 30,000 or 35,000 children
that we've taken care of over the years, and I don't think we have a single
case of autism in children delivered by us who never received vaccines,"
said Dr. Mayer Eisenstein, Homefirst's medical director who founded the
practice in 1973. Homefirst doctors have delivered more than 15,000 babies
at home, and thousands of them have never been vaccinated.

The few autistic children Homefirst sees were vaccinated before their
families became patients, Eisenstein said. "I can think of two or three
autistic children who we've delivered their mother's next baby, and we
aren't really totally taking care of that child -- they have special care
needs. But they bring the younger children to us. I don't have a single
case that I can think of that wasn't vaccinated."

The autism rate in Illinois public schools is 38 per 10,000, according to
state Education Department data; the Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention puts the national rate of autism spectrum disorders at 1 in 166
-- 60 per 10,000.

"We do have enough of a sample," Eisenstein said. "The numbers are too
large to not see it. We would absolutely know. We're all family doctors. If
I have a child with autism come in, there's no communication. It's
frightening. You can't touch them. It's not something that anyone would

No one knows what causes autism, but federal health authorities say it
isn't childhood immunizations. Some parents and a small minority of doctors
and scientists, however, assert vaccines are responsible.

This column has been looking for autism in never-vaccinated U.S. children
in an effort to shed light on the issue. We went to Chicago to meet with
Eisenstein at the suggestion of a reader, and we also visited Homefirst's
office in northwest suburban Rolling Meadows. Homefirst has four other
offices in the Chicago area and a total of six doctors.

Eisenstein stresses his observations are not scientific. "The trouble is
this is just anecdotal in a sense, because what if every autistic child
goes somewhere else and (their family) never calls us or they moved out of

In practice, that's unlikely to account for the pronounced absence of
autism, says Eisenstein, who also has a bachelor's degree in statistics, a
master's degree in public health and a law degree.

Homefirst follows state immunization mandates, but Illinois allows
religious exemptions if parents object based either on tenets of their
faith or specific personal religious views. Homefirst does not exclude or
discourage such families. Eisenstein, in fact, is author of the book "Don't
Vaccinate Before You Educate!" and is critical of the CDC's vaccination
policy in the 1990s, when several new immunizations were added to the
schedule, including Hepatitis B as early as the day of birth. Several of
the vaccines -- HepB included -- contained a mercury-based preservative
that has since been phased out of most childhood vaccines in the United

Medical practices with Homefirst's approach to immunizations are rare.
"Because of that, we tend to attract families that have questions about
that issue," said Dr. Paul Schattauer, who has been with Homefirst for 20
years and treats "at least" 100 children a week.

Schattauer seconded Eisenstein's observations. "All I know is in my
practice I don't see autism. There is no striking 1-in-166," he said.

Earlier this year we reported the same phenomenon in the mostly
unvaccinated Amish. CDC Director Dr. Julie Gerberding told us the Amish
"have genetic connectivity that would make them different from populations
that are in other sectors of the United States." Gerberding said, however,
studies "could and should be done" in more representative unvaccinated
groups -- if they could be found and their autism rate documented.

Chicago is America's prototypical "City of Big Shoulders," to quote Carl
Sandburg, and Homefirst's mostly middle-class families seem fairly
representative. A substantial number are conservative Christians who
home-school their children. They are mostly white, but the Homefirst
practice also includes black and Hispanic families and non-home-schooling
Jews, Catholics and Muslims.

They tend to be better educated, follow healthier diets and breast-feed
their children much longer than the norm -- half of Homefirst's mothers are
still breast-feeding at two years. Also, because Homefirst relies less on
prescription drugs including antibiotics as a first line of treatment,
these children have less exposure to other medicines, not just vaccines.

Schattauer, interviewed at the Rolling Meadows office, said his caseload is
too limited to draw conclusions about a possible link between vaccines and
autism. "With these numbers you'd have a hard time proving or disproving
anything," he said. "You can only get a feeling about it.

"In no way would I be an advocate to stand up and say we need to look at
vaccines, because I don't have the science to say that," Schattauer said.
"But I don't think the science is there to say that it's not."

Schattauer said Homefirst's patients also have significantly less childhood
asthma and juvenile diabetes compared to national rates. An office manager
who has been with Homefirst for 17 years said she is aware of only one case
of severe asthma in an unvaccinated child.

"Sometimes you feel frustrated because you feel like you've got a pretty
big secret," Schattauer said. He argues for more research on all those
disorders, independent of political or business pressures.

The asthma rate among Homefirst patients is so low it was noticed by the
Blue Cross group with which Homefirst is affiliated, according to Eisenstein.

"In the alternative-medicine network which Homefirst is part of, there are
virtually no cases of childhood asthma, in contrast to the overall Blue
Cross rate of childhood asthma which is approximately 10 percent," he said.
"At first I thought it was because they (Homefirst's children) were
breast-fed, but even among the breast-fed we've had asthma. We have
virtually no asthma if you're breast-fed and not vaccinated."

Because the diagnosis of asthma is based on emergency-room visits and
hospital admissions, Eisenstein said, Homefirst's low rate is hard to
dispute. "It's quantifiable -- the definition is not reliant on the
doctor's perception of asthma."

Several studies have found a risk of asthma from vaccination; others have
not. Studies that include never-vaccinated children generally find little
or no asthma in that group.

Earlier this year Florida pediatrician Dr. Jeff Bradstreet said there is
virtually no autism in home-schooling families who decline to vaccinate for
religious reasons -- lending credence to Eisenstein's observations.

"It's largely non-existent," said Bradstreet, who treats children with
autism from around the country. "It's an extremely rare event."

Bradstreet has a son whose autism he attributes to a vaccine reaction at 15
months. His daughter has been home-schooled, he describes himself as a
"Christian family physician," and he knows many of the leaders in the
home-school movement.

"There was this whole subculture of folks who went into home-schooling so
they would never have to vaccinate their kids," he said. "There's this
whole cadre who were never vaccinated for religious reasons."

In that subset, he said, "unless they were massively exposed to mercury
through lots of amalgams (mercury dental fillings in the mother) and/or
big-time fish eating, I've not had a single case."

Federal health authorities and mainstream medical groups emphatically
dismiss any link between autism and vaccines, including the mercury-based
preservative thimerosal. Last year a panel of the Institute of Medicine,
part of the National Academies, said there is no evidence of such a link,
and funding should henceforth go to "promising" research.

Thimerosal, which is 49.6 percent ethyl mercury by weight, was phased out
of most U.S. childhood immunizations beginning in 1999, but the CDC
recommends flu shots for pregnant women and last year began recommending
them for children 6 to 23 months old. Most of those shots contain thimerosal.

Thimerosal-preserved vaccines are currently being injected into millions of
children in developing countries around the world. "My mandate ... is to
make sure at the end of the day that 100,000,000 are immunized ... this
year, next year and for many years to come ... and that will have to be
with thimerosal-containing vaccines," said John Clements of the World
Health Organization at a June 2000 meeting called by the CDC.

That meeting was held to review data that thimerosal might be linked with
autism and other neurological problems. But in 2004 the Institute of
Medicine panel said evidence against a link is so strong that health
authorities, "whether in the United States or other countries, should not
include autism as a potential risk" when formulating immunization policies.

But where is the simple, straightforward study of autism in
never-vaccinated U.S. children? Based on our admittedly anecdotal and
limited reporting among the Amish, the home-schooled and now Chicago's
Homefirst, that may prove to be a significant omission.


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

Listen to this article Listen to this article | Posted by Becca

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