Minneapolis, Minn., Health Officials Investigating Autism ‘Cluster’ Among Somali Community
Increasing autism diagnoses among the Somali community in Minneapolis, Minn., have public health experts wondering "whether the apparent surge of cases is an actual outbreak, with a cause that can be addressed, or just a statistical fluke," the New York Times reports. An estimated 30,000 to 60,000 Somalis live in Minneapolis. The group began to arrive in the city in 1993 after fleeing civil war. In the last 10 years, there have been a "tremendous number" of Somali children born in the city who have more severe forms of autism, according to Anne Harrington, who worked in special education in the Minneapolis school system for 21 years. In 2008, 25% of Minneapolis preschool children receiving the most intensive treatment for autism were from the Somali community, Harrington said. Somali children represent 6% of preschool enrollment in Minneapolis.
The Minnesota Department of Health and CDC officials are conducting an epidemiological survey to examine the situation. However, even if the research confirms the cluster, it likely will not be able to identify the reason for the cluster, the Times reports.
According to the Times, "Speculation is rampant about possible causes," including living conditions in Somalia or in refugee camps in Kenya; traditional medicines; intermarriage; genetic predisposition; vitamin D deficiencies; and vaccines, but "each theory has weaknesses." For example, the vaccine theory is not as credible because most of the children were born in the city and are Medicaid beneficiaries and thus have received the same medical care and vaccinations as other children in the city. Vitamin D deficiency also is a "dubious explanation" because Somalis' rate of the condition is similar to blacks and whites, and Somalis on average have no darker skin than blacks, the Times reports.
Antivaccine advocates in Minneapolis have been encouraging Somali parents not to have their children vaccinated and are suggesting alternative treatments for the condition. Daniel McLellan, a Minneapolis physician, said, "People in the Somali community have gravitated to that theory, and many are resisting immunization" (McNeil, New York Times, 3/17).