Tuesday, August 26, 2008

A surge in autism rates among Somali children in Minnesota

From the intro to the story in the Minneapolis Star Tribune:

As an educator, Anne Harrington had her suspicions.

As a pediatrician, Dr. Dan McLellan also had his.

Both noticed an unusual number of Somali children turning up in their autism programs in Minneapolis and began to wonder why.

Now that question has captured the attention of state and federal health officials, as fears about a possible surge in autism have swept Minnesota's Somali community.

Autism, a brain disorder that can cause disruptive and withdrawn behavior, has been rising rapidly throughout the country. The discovery of a cluster among Somalis, experts say, could help scientists shed light on why. Or, it could just be a statistical fluke.

Recent news reports have prompted speculation about all kinds of potential culprits, from vitamin D deficiency to genetics to vaccines.

In Minneapolis, fears have been fueled by some puzzling statistics. Last year, Somali children made up just under 6 percent of the school population, but 17 percent of those in the early childhood autism programs (14 of 81 children). The numbers have been creeping up for several years, especially among young children.

"People are worried," said Saeed Fahia, who heads a Somali community group. "Nobody remembers any autistic children in Somalia. I'm sure there must have been some, but there were not that many."