Autism the Scourge of the 21st Century (Somali Immigrants in Minneapolis and Autism – Epidemic or Statistical Fluke?)
Managing Editor's Note: At the end of this magnficent post by Mr. Khalif are links to our past stories about the Somali/Autism epidemic in Minnesota, including J.B. Handley's article that so interested Mr. McNeil.
By Abdulkadir A. Khalif
The story in the New York Times by Donald McNeil Jr. and datelined 03/16/2009 (HERE) has started a storm within the autism community, especially the victims of the scourge in Minneapolis. The author picked on a few unsuspecting Somali immigrant families who could understand neither the English language nor the motive of those chaperoning them for the ‘interviews’.
They were deliberately selected so as to appear as representative as possible (one of the kids was born outside the USA). I happened to know the families involved as well as some of the officials quoted. I have read and re-read the NYT story and I am still at a loss of what purpose it really served, or what the real motive of the author is. Mr. McNeil had no opinions of his own on the topic he chose, nor did he qualify any statements he extracted from the people he interviewed. He went to great lengths to quote people and then used others to unravel their arguments. He quoted from government officials and others from nonprofits, all of who are known to have been working together in their elaborate cover-up schemes. All those he met were officials who helped organize the infamous forum in Minneapolis last November. He excluded the Hmong community from the ravages of autism while showing prevalence of the scourge within Somali immigrants in Sweden. That way he was indirectly alluding to a vulnerable gene within the Somalis everywhere.
I will listen to the argument that a gene may predispose all peoples for an autism attack. I will also listen to arguments that some people may be more at risk than others. But we all know that gene knows no race or color or creed, and least of all religion. I was born in East Africa and have just come back from a visit to Kenya. Autism does not have a name in those countries and its incidence (especially in Kenya) has been associated with vaccines, because Kenya has a vaccine schedule that is fast approaching the Swedish and American models. In Somalia where public health facilities and immunizations are still few and far in between you will find diseases that could have been prevented by vaccines but autism is unknown. Even in Kenya, autism has been noticed amongst the affluent and the highly educated in society. This, as you will guess, is because of their adherence to new vaccine schedules and their awareness of the benefits of vaccines.
I will repeat again: I am not anti-vaccine, nor are others like J.B. Handley who have been wrongly labeled as such. We all know what benefits accrue from immunizations. We are also fortunately aware of what risks can come with those benefits. We are only asking that the two be balanced and risks be totally eliminated on both sides. We know that vaccines prevent all the diseases they are intended to prevent. We must however be aware of the diseases they (vaccines) may cause in that endeavor. The CDC and the FDA both know that mercury in vaccines is in excess of what they themselves termed as safe limits. They also know that mercury can be removed from vaccines without compromising the efficacy of the vaccines. Economic considerations should not therefore be allowed to interfere with the wellbeing of our children and the future generations.
The purpose of the NYT story was obviously to show that there is no autism cluster in Minneapolis and that the Somali people, because of their cultural practices were already naturally predisposed for the disease. The author, very cunningly avoided being judgmental and did everything to put words into the mouths of the people he interviewed. He carefully selected his subjects and through them vainly covered his guise, ignorance and bias. He deliberately avoided talking with families who have had success with alternative therapies by labeling them as ‘anti-vaccine’. Through his guides he talked down on Somali immigrant victims of mercury in vaccines by alluding to the fact that they came to the USA already plagued by diseases such as tuberculosis, hepatitis B, depression from the civil war, and vitamin D deficiencies. He even qualified that by quoting a Somali doctor. But then, in a classical double standard he ripped that argument apart as a “dubious explanation”.
I am grateful for this opportunity to share my story and express my personal opinion on the subject of autism which conditions my son Abdimalik I am told is likely to live with his entire life. I got this confirmation from all the experts who have thus far diagnosed, evaluated and tried to treat Abdimalik. For my family, this verdict is equivalent to a life of imprisonment in solitary confinement for our beautiful baby. Abdimalik is the only child in my family who was born in the USA, and when he was born I told my wife that his coming was the best gift we got in America. We even nicknamed him “Mr. President”, because he is the only one who had the opportunity of a shot for the White House, hopefully becoming the first African American to win the Presidency of the United States. While recent events have wiped out that opportunity, Abdimalik would still have had great things happening for him in this great country had autism not plagued his system and isolated him in a cocoon’s nest.
Why did autism strike my son? What did we do wrong to expose him to this disease? Why is he the only one in my family to have it? How is he different from his siblings? Could we have avoided it? Was his autism a pre-existing condition, probably inherited from us, or was it something he acquired after birth? What did we do differently to him that might have exposed him to this danger? Can his condition be reversed now that we know he is different? Are there services, treatments and therapies out there that we are not aware of and which we can afford? What do we do now? Can we take a chance and have another child? These and many more are questions we ask ourselves and which I am sure many other families also do; questions for which answers are not readily available, or if they are would just set a stage for more confusion and questions. I am not a medical professional or an expert of any kind in health issues. My opinion as expressed here is therefore part superstition and part human instinct. But I bet you I will be closer to the truth than the senior MDH official who last November said: “Whenever there is a complex problem, people invent simple solutions which are always wrong”.
In order to find answers to the above questions, we first need to understand and define autism. Experts say that it is a spectrum disorder which is neurological in nature. They describe its symptoms in terms that place the victims somewhere between an angel and the devil. Although it is possible that autism may have existed since time immemorial, it’s hand-flapping, anti-social, sleepless type that also sends the victims into uncontrollable tantrums, and which also affects about 1 in every 166 kids in the USA is both new and worrying. The first time I ever heard about autism was when my son was diagnosed with it. He was about 1 ½ years old at that time and we were concerned that he had lost the few words he had learned and was displaying behaviors that were utterly at variance from his peers of similar age. We have had many kids and knew what milestones to expect and when. We actually theorized that his language loses or delay was as a result of his confusion with the many languages we speak at home. Anyhow, the autism verdict was the harshest thing we have ever heard and it really changed our lives from there on. We still remember the last words Abdimalik uttered, and those came when the nurse who was about to give him his MMR shot stuck a beautiful sticker to his shirt pocket in order to create rapport with him. The words were: “thank you.”
If as pundits say, autism has always been around, we would have seen autistic adults in the same proportions as the children of nowadays. Autism definitely did not exist in East Africa in the numbers or manners we see here today. Is it lack of diagnoses or is it just not made public because of the stigma that goes with all uncommon things? I personally believe that its incidence or occurrence is limited; Kids with autism are so dysfunctional that there is no way it could have been missed or remained un-identified for all these years. It does not even have a name where we came from. What then is happening with our children here in America?
To answer this question, I would like to refresh your minds a little with some historical events that occurred in Africa many years ago. They are relevant to the issue of autism today because, simple as they may be, those events set the stage for research that revolutionized human medicine.
About 150 years ago an English explorer and adventurer by the name Richard Burton set on a voyage that took him to Somaliland to ‘discover’ the north eastern approaches to the African Great Lakes region. As he trekked through Somaliland he came upon Somali nomads who slept in ‘tree-houses’ on treetops, high above the ground in order to escape mosquitoes during the night. The Somalis believed that mosquitoes caused malaria and also knew that they could not fly higher than five feet above the ground. In Europe at that time, everybody believed that malaria was caused by ‘bad air’ – hence the term ‘malaria’. Richard Burton was amused and wrote a long report on the ‘stupidity of the Somali people’. Curious scientists of that age picked on the cue and invented medicines to prevent or treat malaria, and confirmed that mosquitoes are actually carriers of the bug that caused malaria. Complex problem, simple solution, and it worked.
In West Africa, there is a disease known as Kwashiorkor which strikes children when they attain a certain age. That age is when a baby is weaned out of breast milk and a new baby is on its way. Kwashiorkor is therefore defined as ‘the disease the old baby gets when a new baby is born’. Malnutrition was the condition that plagued those kids and lack of milk protein was the cause. The timing of that disease jolted clever minds and associated milk with the disease. Another complex problem, with a simple solution that also worked. Why can’t the timing of the MMR vaccine and the coincidence with language loss and other behavioral regression in our kids be associated by the CDC and the FDA? It makes sense to look there instead of running away from what could be the answer to the puzzle. Our children are too important to be sacrificed for political or economic expediencies.
The traditional foods of the Somali people are milk and meat, mostly from camels. Camel meat and milk is a world different from cow milk and meat. They have less fat and are more easily processed by the human body. They are also known to have a very different chemical composition and are known to be ‘more friendly’ as a human diet. Camel milk is not available in the USA and cow milk in its processed form has been frowned upon by many. Other processed foods like wheat have also been associated with some allergic reactions, especially with autistic children. Shouldn’t these be something our public health officials concerned about? You bet.
Abdimalik, his mother and I stayed up most of the nights during the winters of 2006 and 2007. We were all depressed and stressed beyond tolerance and the rest of our children showed the same signs. After recommendations from other parents of autistic kids, we placed Abdimalik on a strict GFCF regime throughout the following summer and fall. We noticed remarkable improvements in his sleeping and feeding habits. We decided to wait until the winter of 2008 to see if he would revert to his sleepless schedules. He did not and boy, are we relieved. Had he gone back to his conditions of 2007, we would have concluded that the cold winters of Minnesota were to blame and we would have been out of here forever. No, it is not the cold winters of Minnesota. It was his allergies to gluten and casein that were to blame. He had no trouble with milk and wheat before November of 2006 when he turned 1 ½ years. Yes, the efficient and prize-winning Minnesota vaccine schedule had caught up with him.
Today we are faced with questions about autism and its prevalence in the Somali immigrants in the USA, especially in Minnesota. We are trying to figure out if there truly is a higher incidence of autism amongst the Somali people or if there is a misdiagnosis that profiles them. We have heard of parents’ concerns about vaccines and officials telling us that they are safe. I have no doubts in my mind that vaccines are beneficial and have eliminated many diseases, and that the human race is forever grateful to the scientists who discovered them and the pharmaceutical companies that produced them. But as with everything new and beneficial, there are side-effects and other things that give. I believe that what is beneficial for one person may be harmful to another. There are allergies that afflict some people and not others. Some people react to certain medicines while others don’t - that is why doctors always ask if we have allergies of any kind before they prescribe medicine. Is it therefore possible that some children have allergic reactions to some chemicals in the vaccines? How is it possible that all kids will accept the vaccines in the same way, so that doctors don’t have to ask the parents about the possible allergies they may have? There are the same vaccines in East Africa too although their administration is very different. Could we borrow a leaf from countries like Kenya who have a vaccine schedule and where many Somali people also live? Or are we going to be defensive in the face of criticism because we have no answers to these many questions?
The CDC and the Minnesota Department of Health are the jury and judge. They will hand down a verdict that vaccines do not cause autism. They will base their decision not on scientific evidence that identifies the cause of autism but on the lack of evidence that vaccines do actually cause autism. They may be taking a decision similar to one taken by a judge sentencing an innocent person to death only to discover 10 years after the person’s execution that he was innocent. Just imagine the sense of guilt that will plague that judge. Many of our children are still very young and many more will be born in the future. We have to take action now because if we don’t we will have a country of psychotics and mentally retarded people in the not too distant future.
Please note that I am not arguing that vaccines cause autism just as I cannot argue that mosquitoes cause malaria because they don’t. But just as we now know that mosquitoes actually carry the bugs that cause malaria I am suspicious that the many vaccines that we give our children may carry substances that cause autism. I have no proof and I maybe superstitious. But the ‘superstitious’ beliefs of the Somali nomads in 1854 jogged the minds of curious scientists who eventually found the causes and cures of malaria. I hope that the scientists of today will have the courage to accept their ignorance and give a second look at our superstitious beliefs. I also hope that bureaucracy and bad policy, the politics of ‘non-profit’ and the psychology of ‘for-profit’ will not get in our way as we march forward in our war against autism. We will all look forward to the day when our kids will have another chance to thank the nurse practitioner during a subsequent vaccine visit and that what was supposed to protect them will not silence them forever. I also hope that our scientists will stop following the gene highway to nowhere and try the alternative route to salvation. My wife and I are not cousins, nor are our parents.
ABDULKADIR A KHALIF.
Chair: Board of Directors, Parents United Against Autism-Minneapolis.
Father of a four year old autistic boy called Abdimalik, and six other children.
Land Surveyor by profession working in Engineering Department of the City of Burnsville, MN.
Born in Somalia and worked and lived in both Somalia and Kenya. Came to the USA in August 1999 and did not live anywhere else in the USA.
HERE: Out of Africa and Into Autism: More Evidence Illuminates the Somali Anomaly in Minnesota
HERE: David Kirby on HuffPo: Minneapolis and the Somali Autism Riddle
HERE: Minnesota and the CDC Confer on Somali Autism Situation: CDC’s Office of the Director: Autism May Result from “Chemical Exposures”
HERE: Somali Parents Give the Autism Forum a "C+"
HERE: Minnesota Investigates Autism in Somali Children
HERE: Somali Gloves Come Off: Autism in Minnesota
HERE: An Open Letter from JB Handley to the Somali Parents of Minnesota
HERE: Autism Strikes 1 in 28 Somali Children in Minnesota