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On Autism, Somalis Feel the Chill in Minnesota

Frozen_sunBy Anne Dachel

In the early 1990's, they first came to the Twin Cities.  Thousands of refugees fled from civil war in Somalia and settled in Minnesota, believing that they had left tragedy behind them in Africa.  What they never expected to find in their new country was a mysterious disorder that would strike their children at an epidemic rate.

Last summer, stories about the explosion in autism among American-born Somali children got the attention of the U.S. autism community. 

The numbers are staggering.  July 25, Amelia Santaniello at WCCO-TV reported that autism was something unknown back in Africa.  Santaniello cited autism specialist for the Minneapolis schools, Anne Harrington.  'It's so glaring here in Minneapolis, I couldn't not see it.'

Harrington should know, she's been working with autistic students for over 20 years. 
Her numbers are scary. 

While Somali children make up only 6 percent of the student population, they are 25 percent of those in the autism special education program.  Harrington pointed out that these kids are also affected with the most severe forms of the disorder. 

Harrington was also interviewed by Reuters reporter Elizabeth Gorman.  In "A mysterious Connection: autism and Minneapolis' Somali children" on July 24, Harrington talked about the role vaccines might play in this crisis.  'They're given more [vaccines] than we get and sometimes they're doubled up.  Then their children are given immunizations.  In Somalia, their generations have not received these immunizations, and then suddenly they're getting just a wallop of them in the moms and then in the babies.  That's certainly a concern that's been expressed to me by the Somali population.'

In another part of the Reuter's piece Harrington was quoted saying, 'It's got to be preventable.'

August 24, the Minneapolis Star Tribune ran the story by Maura Lerner, "Autism statistics alarm Somalis."   Lerner interviewed autism medical expert, Dr. Dan McLellan, who made it clear that this is a serious problem for the Somalis.  He said 10 percent of his patients are Somalis.  McClellan believes 'there's something up with this,' but he admits he can't explain it.

In the same piece, Judy Punyko from the Minnesota Dept. of Health was cited as the head of a newly formed study group that would look into autism in the Somali population.  She said, 'We want to understand the numbers.  That's my goal,' meaning that they didn't know for sure just how bad the rate is for the Somalis in Minneapolis schools.  She further said, 'We have a condition that has no known cause and there is no cure.  And people are looking to us to provide them with answers.'

On November 15, the public gathered to get those answers.  Officials addressed autism in the Somali community with a day-long forum held in south Minneapolis.  Representatives from the Minnesota Dept. of Health, the public schools, the Somali community, and various autism groups were in attendance.
A handout told the audience, "The primary objective of this Forum is to raise awareness in the Somali community about developmental delays in children with specific emphasis on autism and to engage the community."

Among other things, attendees would "learn concrete facts about autism. . . and connect to appropriate screening, assessment, and treatment services."

What I found was an attempt by public health officials to downplay the seriousness of the Somali situation and to ignore the demand for answers from the parents of affected children.  Most of all, it was used as an opportunity to publicly deny any connection between vaccines and the outbreak of autism among the Somali children in Minneapolis. 
Dr. Sanne Magnan, Commissioner of the Minnesota Dept. of Health opened the meeting by talking about available services.  She then addressed the vaccine issue, making it clear, "There is no association."  She cited the CDC website as the official source for the facts about vaccine safety.  Next to clear air and water, she told us, vaccines are the greatest modern improvement in health care.  She was obviously unwilling to consider the claims of parents who believe vaccines caused their child's autism.  She told us, "Those are the facts," which meant of course, that anything challenging her denial was relegated to the opinion category.
Magnan called autism a "complex disorder" and she said, "For every complex problem, there's a simple solution-and it's usually wrong."

Magnan wasn't available to respond to parents because she had to be at another meeting immediately after her talk.

Other education and health experts talked, noting the services provided for children with autism.  Among the speakers were three of the same people covered in the Somali-autism news stories back last summer.

Anne Harrington was there but she didn't talk about Somalis being over-vaccinated like she did in the Reuters piece from July.  Nor did she again say it's preventable.  Instead, she talked about the help the schools provide and she made a strange comment about how "reassuring" it was to see that the rise in the autism population in MN was the same as the rest of the country.

Dr. McLellan was heard from again in the first panel to present information.  His main message didn't sound anything like what he had said in the Tribune.  He wasn't concerned that there was 'something up with this.'  Instead, he knew all about autism and he wasn't worried.  He wasted no time in getting out the message that autism is nothing new.  He told us about the "long history of autism' which went back to the 1500's.  His position was clear: we've always had kids like this.
McLellan noted that 1943 was the beginning of the modern understanding of autism.  No longer was autism seen as possession by the devil or as a mental illness.  According to the doctor, genes are to blame.  "Genes program our brains" as children move from one stage of development to another.  He had a generalized definition of autism which was something about kids with autism having "major difficulties with how they cope with life."

Only once did vaccines get a mention.  McLellan told us that the vaccine schedule has been around since the 1960s and we haven't had any problems.

Judy Punyko, epidemiologist for the MDH, was also on one of the panels.  She talked again about her big project: a major prevalence study to look into the Somali situation.  We were cautioned that this would "not be an incidence study."  Punyko has been working all these months to get the numbers from the schools so the MDH could determine if there's been a real increase.   This was happening because "last summer there were some concerns" about the number of Somali kids suddenly diagnosed as having autism.  The study would find out if there are really more kids or if it just seems that there are.  "Are there a lot of Somali kids with autism?"  There might be.  There might be even lower numbers among the Somalis than the general population.  This study would tell us.
Punyko warned us that her study wouldn't however tell us what was causing autism.  It will also take several months to gather data and determine the results.  She advised us that she'd have her findings in March.
The person who had the most to say about vaccines and autism was the woman in charge of the vaccine program for the Dept. of Health, Kristen Ehresmann.  She's also the mother of a son with autism.  She assured parents that she understood their concerns.
Ehresmann told us about the life-saving benefits of vaccines.  She also noted that next to clean water, nothing has more beneficial for the health of our kids than vaccines.  She warned us about kids dying from vaccine-preventable deaths if parents don't vaccinate. 
She had the answers about vaccine safety.  She wanted us to know, "Vaccine safety standards are higher than for any other drug."  Many studies are done before vaccines are licensed.
Regarding thimerosal in vaccines, she said that it's been used since the 1920's.  Most Americans over the age of six received thimerosal in their vaccines and there haven't been any problems. 

Ehresmann announced that since 2002, no vaccines have contained more than a trace of thimerosal, except for influenza vaccines.

Even after thimerosal was removed, autism rates have continued to climb and this is further proof that it's not related to autism, according to Ehresmann.

Ehresmann believes it's a coincidence that some children regress into autism following vaccinations.  In response to one question about immigrants getting repeated vaccinations upon entering the U.S., she said "It would be okay." 

When answering a question about thimerosal, Ehresmann made the remark that there's "a small amount of mercury" in thimerosal.

In my opinion, the best speaker of the day was in the last panel.  Abdulkadir Khalif, father of a three and a half year old year old son with autism, addressed the vaccine controversy.  He stated that if autism's always been around, "it's not what I see in my child."  He told us about his belief that components of vaccines are the trigger for autism.  He received resounding applause when he announced to the crowd that the cause and the cure for autism would be found.  (This was something that wasn't said by MDH officials that day.  Instead, we were simply told by them that autism is a lifelong disability with no known cause or cure.)

During the lunch break, I had the opportunity to sit down with several participants to get their perspective on the day.  Two parents, both fluent in English, gave me their opinion. 
One was the end speaker Adulkadir Khalif.  He told me about his son, Abdimalik, who was normally developing, but following routine vaccinations, regressed into autism.  His bright, verbal little boy suddenly stopped talking or recognizing his father.  Khalif came to this forum with plenty of questions, but he got no answers that day.  He told me that there was nothing new in what the speakers had said.  He commented that Somalis know how "to Google" for information too.  He believes that officials are simply in denial.  To get a true picture of what's happening, he said they need to focus on who got sick.  Are Somali children who have autism only the ones born in the U.S.?  If that's true, then something here is affecting children.
Among the parents I talked with was a young mother, Hodan Hassan, who said that officials have to address concerns about the vaccine schedule so kids don't get so many so soon.  So far they've only said they "will consider" this action.  Later she sent me an email about the day and told me, "It did not go the way I thought it will happen.  I know now that we were not even respected."
Khalif also wrote to me about his reaction.  He told me that the parent panel, where he talked about the link to vaccines, was purposely put at the end.  Speakers like Health Commisioner Magnan, pediatrician McClellan, and chief of the immunizations section at the MDH, Ehresman, had all left by that time.
To the Somali mother who felt that they weren't shown respect at this forum, I can only say that it's nothing new and it's not because they are a newly arrived immigrant group. 
I couldn't miss the similarity between how MN health officials are addressing the Somali autism crisis and how the Institute of Medicine reported their findings in 2004 as well as how the CDC handles autism.
Minnesota state epidemiologist Punyko is still unable to give us a definitive answer about autism among Somali students but she hopes she'll know something by March.  This is what the autism community is used to.  The CDC has been counting U.S. children with autism for years and they still don't know if there are more of them or if they're just the result of "better diagnosing" and no real increase at all.

When the IOM Report was released in 2004, it gave vaccines a clean bill of health.  They have no connection to autism.  All the important studies said so.  It was supposed to end the controversy, but it's now the most heated issue in medicine.  The MDH made a impressive showing for the Somali community.  They assured people that vaccines couldn't be the reason that they now had all these disabled children to care for.  Officials could talk about services and support groups but that's not why parents came to the meeting.  They wanted answers and there were none, just as the IOM Report had nothing worthwhile for parents.
Minnesota health officials may think that they've addressed the issue but nothing was settled.  What's happening in the Somali community in Minneapolis is happening everywhere and authorities can't continue to pretend that it's not.  As a nation, having so many disabled children that no one can explain is a prescription for disaster. As I'm always saying, show us the adults with autism at a rate we see in our children.  So far, no one has ever been able to produce the studies on autism among adults.  All the officials at the Minneapolis meeting who showed no alarm, no sense of urgency over the reported autism rate of one in every 28 Somali schoolchildren, can't point to a similar rate of autism in Somali adults.  That should call all the safety claims into question.  That should be scaring everyone at the Minnesota Dept. of Health.



Grace Green

Dana Hamilton,
Thank you for your input to the debate. I think you would have to agree that your data come from a very small population, and there could be a number of different explanations for your findings. For example, have the patients who receive an autism diagnosis EVER been vaccinated for anything? Autistic symptoms can present some time after the latest vaccination. Brain damage and poisoning do not have an instant effect. That's very much been my personal experience.


@Dana Hamilton

Just a thought.

Could the H.pylori findings just be a distraction?
The incidence is very common in children in Africa.
Possible scenario:
May speak good English but they are inclined to sometimes use medical words differently from us.
Consider themselves to be well again (as in line with the Muslim belief ) even if the symptoms have only temporarily subsided and so may not realize an ongoing problem.
They may have substituted commercially baked bread for their traditional Teff and Sorghum grain breads.
Get symptoms of Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity to the novel proteins in wheat.
Go to the drug-store ‘repeatedly’ and buy Anti-Acids with

    aluminium hydroxide as the active ingredient.
Give it to their children without the pharmacist being made aware of the age of the child. It is now suspected that the mucosal barrier is actually more permeable to this molecule. Many brands of formulae milk have been found to have very high levels of aluminium and could add to the total load.
Finally, they come to you.
Cultural differences, different use of medical words, reports of duration of symptoms, missing symptoms out (e.g. diarrhoea/constipation), all goes to make, taking an accurate medical history difficult and establishing the cause(s).

Beleaguered Autism Mom

Dr. Hamilton, Would you share your numbers of vaccinated and diagnosed with autism vice those not-vaccinated and diagnosed with autism - like Dr. Paul Thomas has. Are the babies born in hospitals in Columbus OH exempt from Hep B at birth? It would be helpful to know. Thank you.

Dana Hamilton

I am a pediatrician in Columbus, OH. I serve a large Somali population. This vaccine Autism debate is still going strong. The interesting thing is a large portion refuses to vaccinate yet I continue to diagnose these children with Autism at alarmingly high rates. I am a strong believer that it is NOT the vaccines but maybe a dietary link. I screen for H.pylori which I fine 80% of somali population is positive. and in talking to families who are 1st or 2nd generation immigrants, their diet is completely different here in the US.

John Scatchard

Autism and schizophrenia are both associated with similar groups of mutations that can either be expressed or not expressed. The DNA that a person is born with doesn’t change, but certain small molecules in the body control whether the small genes in the very long strand of DNA ever get made into proteins or not. Methylation, acetylation, ubiquination and other epigenetic protein controlling molecular bonding tricks determine which of the mutated and normal genes are expressed. What the one carbon methyl or two carbon acetyl and other small molecules do is to stick to the edges of the long strand of DNA and prevent floating strands of RNA, that make the proteins, to move in close enough to read the gene sequences. If RNA and transport proteins can't touch the inherited DNA, they can't put together the thousands of essential animal proteins needed for good health. If the mutated genes are fully methylated or blocked by some other small molecule, they don't become expressed. It's best if gene mutations don't express. In the case of tumor supressor genes, they should be fully demethylated and exposed, so the transport molecules and RNA will fit in to read the DNA. Then, the tumor suppressor genes will be able to express. How the body figures out how to control all these metabolic chain reactions is the great mystery.
In the case of increased prevalence of autism in the Somali community, it is probably related to the genetic sequences that each child is born with. The similarity between the American and Swedish Somali populations highly suggests that genetic factors are at work. The epigenetic factors can be influenced by nutrition, stress and environmental toxins, which might include vaccinations. The first place to look for the underlying problem is at the genetic factors. The second place to look is at the epigenetic factors that determine which of the genetic factors will be expressed.
People who appear normal also have gene mutations, but all animals have secondary, somewhat redundant metabolic systems that cover for mutations. In a child with autism, there are not enough healthy metabolic systems and there are too many mutated systems. The result is poor digestion, nervous system development and dysregulated immune function. These conditions are made worse by pathogenic gut microbes, such as toxin producing Candida species and Helicobacter pylori. These and every toxin add to the oxidative stress that already results from the original mutations. With this vicious cycle going on, the brain cannot develop to its full potential. If there are negative epigenetic or environmental factors happening, they make the whole situation worse. If, through optimal diet and elimination of toxicity etc., the epigenetic influence is improved to support proper methylation, acetylation etc., the situation can be improved. Causes of autism start before conception.
Point A; how does one evaluate genetic factors? And if that is done, is it possible to notice disease patterns in Somali genetics, and to heal them with new protocols?
A system has already been worked out. A lady by the name of Dr. Amy Yasko, from Maine, has a system called Nutrigenomics. She charges a fair price for a series of genetic, blood and urinary tests to evaluate genetic and metabolic conditions that are the most common. Upon knowing what metabolites and genes are present, she recommends dietary and other regimens, which experience has shown to be successful. In comments that appear on the CH3Nutrigenomics blog section of her holistichealth.com website, many real-life situations are portrayed. In the section called The Basics, is the theory behind her work. Of course, her system isn’t perfect, but it’s a miraculous beginning that incorporates a very solid genetic database.
In the case of a mostly low income, immigrant society, it might work out such that a modest number of children and parents can be genetically analyzed. It might be safe to assume Somali genetics are similar throughout the community, and that the therapeutic techniques can be shared among the others. Trying new foods infrequently and keeping good dietary records can help educate the main part of the group that is limited to trial, error and record keeping.
Another aspect of the autism situation is that digestive, immune and nervous functions are affected, so chronic, slow-growing pathogens may set in. Trevor Marshall has addressed this problem. His eloquent sidekick, Amy Proal put out an astounding free article in 2006 called Understanding Biofilms. In it, she describes how pathogens, and good microbes as well, produce slimy patches of biofilm to establish tenacious colonies and evade the immune system. Trevor Marshall has a protocol using pulsed, low doses of antibiotics to eradicate such stealthy pathogens. Readers might take a look at the positive, genius sides of these authors and develop techniques that use the best that is available.

James Butler

Anne Dachel,

Can you please put me in touch with Anne Harrington?



What good is it to prevent stuff like measels, mumps and rubella if all these kids highly vaccinated get AUTISM??? ...something that lasts for LIFE!!

Dana C. Sturdivant

Wow! Surprise Surprise they're denying the vaccine-autism connection...my god do we all have STUPID written on our forehead?????
10% of the immigrant's children become autistic and all of them happen to be after the vaccinations, and still there is no connection...Okay, I think it's time to call Oprah and have her do a story on this! One word Unbelievable and Welcome to America!

Cherry Sperlin Misra

So the severely afflicted autistic Somali kids are going to be connected for "appropriate screening, assessment and treatment" Lucky children! AoA needs to get that carved in stone:
Screened Assessed Treated...and Forgotten

Cherry Sperlin Misra

To Anne and others, It would be very nice to have some other relevant details about the Somali community:
How many of the children were vaccinated before they entered the U.S.? If this were done, surely high mercury vaccines would have been used.
What are the ages of the children? We all know that mercury was still in vaccines in undetermined amounts up until a few years ago.Do we even have any confidence today, that the non thimerosal vaccines are truly non thimerosal?
How much fish are these populations consuming? Has anyone in Minnesota warned them about the dangers of tuna? My experience is that one can be quite surprised about who is eating a lot of fish.
Are there high levels of pollutants in the air in the areas where they live?
Please give us more information. !


Q (If I may be colloquial with you, though it feels like I'm in a James Bond movie) we can ask the Somali population in MN about other populations. They are quite knowledgable about the rates in Africa and which populations appear to have autism versus those who do not. Far more will be coming out on this topic, you can be sure. Thanks for the kinds words. Rather a double triple maybe quadruple whammy with the job situation. I fear we'll have much company in 2009. Hmmm, maybe I should go work for a pharma company? They seem to do pretty well? (Not so much...)



Kim and Anne,

Thanks for the follow-up. It would be interesting to know, for comparison's sake, what the autism situation is like in other towns with high Somali populations, such as Lewiston, Maine (mentioned in an earlier thread on this topic).

(Also, Kim, sorry to hear about the job situation, as per your HuffPost piece. Hope things are shaping up a bit better. Scary times all around ...)

sign lady

"The national media, especially the print media, are beholden to PHarma advertising dollars. With print media going the way of the dodo, they can't afford to piss off such a big profit sector. Maybe we should be pushing for a bill to reinstate the ban on direct consumer pharmaceutical advertising. Then we might see some more honest reporting."

Bingo! Thank you Garbo. That's why it's so important for all of us to tell the autism/vaccine story in local media - letters to local newspapers, opportunities on local radio and TV news, etc. The local media seems to have no problem with our point of view.

(And I agree about pharma consumer ads - they need to be legislated out of existence.)

As for the Somalia story, it's so heartbreaking - tragedy on top of tragedy - with the usual (expected) denials.

I hope the local autism community in Minnesota is working hard to spread the truth about vaccines and the hazards of overvaccination.


Thank you, QChan63 - I looked at that site. Most interesting. Launched in 2007, unlike ASA which was founded in the 1960's. They say that 10% of autism is genetic on the site, leaving 90% to "something else" although they don't say what. They are most realistic in their depiction of autism too - none of the sweet sugarcoating of say an Autism Speaks or others. I've sent them the info on the Somali situation, I'm sure they'll find it most intersting.



Anne Dachel

To qchan63:
Thank you for the correction about the WCCO report.
Actually, it was from a piece by Steven Novella
"Autism is unknown in Somalia, but the children of Somali immigrants in two communities in Minnesota and Sweden have reported higher numbers of cases than the general population."
While the story wasn't supportive of a link between autism and the vaccinations the Somalis received, Novella did make the statement that it was unknown in Somalia. Something I also heard from Somali parents.
David Kirby quoted one Somalia mother in his Huffington piece on Nov. 19,
"Autism did not exist in Somalia, if it did we would have a word for it. We would have seen Somali adults with autism."
Personally, I believe there were cases of autism in Somali but they were so isolated that the disorder was unknown to the general public.

Anne Dachel


Just to clarify, Amelia Santaniello of WCCO did not report that autism is unknown in Africa. She quoted a refugee worker as observing there are "not many" cases of autism in the African nation of Somalia.

If autism were unknown on the continent, it would seem odd that the following Web site would exist:

Heather O

Great summary Anne. As a Minnesota parent of child with autism who’s tried for years to get proper action from the Minnesota Department of Health and have found nothing but stonewalling tactics, my heart goes out to the Somali community. I am very encouraged that their communities’ spirit and savvy members will break through the Minnesota Department of Health’s hard shell of denial and self-installed ignorance on the vaccine autism link.
Ben’s Dad – I was at the forum. Eshermann carefully chose her words. She basically said that manufacturers took thimerosal out of the vaccines in the childhood schedule by 2002. We know that this is a misleading statement because vaccines have a shelf life of several years and Eshermann is making the assumption that trace thimerosal (less than 1 microgram) is the same as no thimerosal, when it actually means “preservative free” and she assumesa child is less than 3 years old. She testified in 2006 that children in Minnesota received thimerosal containing, or preservative level vaccines into 2003. This excludes the flu vaccines (they still contain preservative levels of thimerosal).


I love this blog and am concerned and following the situation with Somalis in Minn. Therefore, when I read the following article, I thought it might answer some questions as to why some parents may not be willing to participate. Please understand I am not saying anyone in the community has done anything wrong but it might be beneficial in helping the community to understand this aspect of the family dynamic at large.

Furthermore, since it mentions a Somali community in Tennessee, I was wondering if they are also experiencing high autism rates, and if the mentioned Catholic Charities could assist in reaching out to Somalis with autism too:


Ben's Dad

The 2002 date is just wrong, at least in NJ. The hospital my son was born at did not stock thimeresol free vaccines in mid 2002, and we had to specifically request it for his later shots.

Christie Todd Whitman got a lot of heat for giving air safety assurances after 911. It will be interesting to see if Minnesota officials and others are choosing their words carefully enough and acting expeditiously enough to keep them out of trouble in the years ahead. Whitman avoided responsibility in 2008. A NY Daily News Article stated “But the 28-page ruling said there was no evidence Whitman knew she was dispensing lies and her decision to go along with a White House whitewash didn't "shock the conscience." “ How can we make acknowledgement of this Somali issue unavoidable and a shock of the conscience? Are the special education statistics given by the schools not the currently available government statistics?

May I suggest adding an AoA category for “Somali Anomaly” or something similar so that readers can track this story?


Great overview, Anne, and I appreciate your many insights. You spent more time time talking with parents than the government officials; they bailed.

Minneapolis Star Tribune reporter Maura Lerner attended all day but I have not seen any article on the Somali autism forum published there yet. I'm not holding my breath for anything particularly revelatory from that medium.

The Minnesota State Legislature will reconvene in regular session beginning at 12 noon on Tuesday, January 6, 2009. Legislators' contact information can be found within these websites:


The national media, especially the print media, are beholden to PHarma advertising dollars. With print media going the way of the dodo, they can't afford to piss off such a big profit sector. Maybe we should be pushing for a bill to reinstate the ban on direct consumer pharmaceutical advertising. Then we might see some more honest reporting.


For years we have heard this same kind of denial -- vaccines are proven safe; there has always been autism and maybe the current "epidemic" is just better diagnosis; we have no idea what causes autism but we are absolutely certain it's not vaccines; there's no cure (and those DAN! biomedical treatments are quackery); we're researching it, but we are not studying the immune/nervous/biochemical systems of individual children whose parents say they are vaccine injured, and we are not studying children whose parents say they recovered from autism; we are doing the highest form of science which is epidemiological numbers crunching. And don't confuse coincidence with causation!

We have been hearing this for years. But it is all the more egregious when looking at a population with a 1 in 28 rate of autism among children born here, parental reports of vaccine reactions followed by regression into autism, and parental reports of this being a novel condition that was not experienced in Somalia.

How much longer can the medical establishment ignore parents and evidence?

If anyone reading this is involved in the incoming Obama administration, please -- we are begging you -- there has to be a change!!! Please, please listen and learn!

An essential comonent of a vaccine program is to study adverse events, understand these events, and figure out how to minimize these events - whether by changes in ingredients, changes in the schedule, better identification of vulnerable children -- and not just adding more and more vaccines willy-nilly with no recognition of adverse effects!

Maurine Meleck

This is a really good overall summary of the meeting. And everytime I read another one, I get angrier and angrier.How long can this continue to go on-the denial? I hope the Somalis will start getting vaccine exemptions and that they are allowed to do this.


Where is the National Media on this? I can't tell how many times I've heard about the whooping cough outbreak in West Middlesex Pa in the last couple of days.

When it comes to the devastation of vaccine induced autism the silence is deafening.

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