By Dan Olmsted
Back in the early days of USA Today 30 years ago, the paper’s founder, Al Neuharth, roamed the newsroom, micromanaging and demanding impossibly high standards. That was not necessarily a bad thing – the paper was his baby and he knew what he wanted – but it produced some classic moments. In one case, he rejected headline after headline on a particular story – as it was told to me, 24 times -- until the frustrated editor once again handed him the first headline that he had by now forgotten.
“Finally!” Neuharth exclaimed.
I’m about at that point when it comes to the Amish and their amazingly good health. There’s been story after story reporting the relative absence of Alzheimer’s, allergies, asthma – you know, the big chronic disorders that plague the people who live around them, namely the rest of us. Not to mention -- not ever -- the lack of autism.
Autism aside, the medical and media establishments still manage to evade the logical implications – something is protecting the overall health of this insular community whose rejection of many contemporary norms is legendary. You would think they would want to find out what that something is and try to clone it, stat, especially as the same disorders and diseases hit epidemic rates outside the Amish world and these same “experts” express complete bafflement about what’s going on.
A letter to the editor of the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, dated March 16, 2012 and published in the most recent edition online, is the latest to make this point. The six authors, scientists from Indiana, Germany, and Switzerland, state: “The prevalence of allergic sensitization has increased in most developed counties over the past century. In the United States, the third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey found 54.3% of the study population to have evidence of allergic sensitization.”
But not so among the 25,000 Amish in Indiana, who “live primarily an agrarian lifestyle. Many families live on working farms. All Amish families have horses that are used for transportation. A significant percentage drinks raw milk. They do not use electricity in their homes. They have large families.”
And they have very little allergy – among children ages 6 to 12 years, the percentage showing evidence of allergic sensitization was a mere 7.2 percent. This was far lower than two comparison groups; children in Switzerland who lived on farms had a still-low 25.2 percent, and Swiss non-farm children 44.2 percent, approaching international averages.
What gives? Well, “although we have not determined specific mechanisms, this study continues to support the effect of early farm exposures and their impact in significantly reducing the prevalence of asthma and allergic sensitization.” Those “exposures” might include raw milk, lots of siblings and farm animals – the usual constituents of the hygiene hypothesis that posits rolling around in lots of germs will keep you from getting allergies.
Well, maybe. Raw milk is a controversial issue right now, with the feds fighting it and lots of natural-health folks believing it is much healthier. But c’mon, people! What about non-exposures, like non-exposure to the full-throttle 2012 CDC-recommended, state-mandated vaccination schedule starting with mercury-containing flu shots in utero and Hep B at birth. What percentage of these Amish were non-exposed to that schedule compared to the average suburban family?
And we already know that vaccines can trigger asthma, the king of allergies. As my colleague Mark Blaxill has reported, “If you look at the totality of the published evidence the picture is admittedly somewhat mixed, but for anyone with an open mind and a critical eye, the argument for a strong role for vaccines as a cause of asthma is persuasive.” Even delaying the DPT shot by a couple of months cuts the rate of asthma by more than double.
I’m not sure we’ll find out from these authors, whose stated conflicts include consulting for Novartis, GlaxoSmithKline, ProtectImmun and InfectoPharm. (InfectoPharm? You cannot be serious. Sounds like the villain in a dystopian novel a friend of mine is writing.)
We get this all the time. Astonishing health outcomes in the Amish are trumpeted, with pretty feeble efforts to figure out why. In 2008, I interviewed Margaret Pericak-Vance, an autism gene researcher, who has also studied dementia in an Amish group and reported in a 1996 study that it is less common than in the outside Caucasian population. As I reported then: “She found they also have a lower incidence of a gene called APO-E4. That gene is associated with Alzheimer's disease; in fact, ‘it's the one risk factor that's been confirmed in thousands of studies worldwide,’ Pericak-Vance said. Her deduction: Because the Amish she studied have less APO-E4, they have a lower incidence of dementia; her findings have been ‘just recently confirmed in some updated data we have with the Amish population.’"
OK, so now we have genes, lots of siblings, maybe raw milk, hanging around farm animals as possible factors in less allergy and Alzheimer’s in the Amish. Put a cow in your living room and some Amish genes in your DNA and some raw milk in your Sanka and all manner of things shall be well.
Or maybe not. There’s still that pesky autism problem. You would think, given how easy it was for mainstream researchers to establish the rate of allergy and Alzheimer’s among the Amish – low, very low – we could at least figure out what the autism rate is. A ballpark figure? An order of magnitude?
Nope. It’s all so very, very complicated. (Just ask Julie Gerberding.) Skeptic-style bloggers with no expertise and lots of faux gravitas have tried to establish that there is beaucoup de l’autisme avec les Amish. One such attempt blew up rather badly because the doctor quoted, at the Clinic for Special Children in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, said the only cases he had seen were in children who were born with frank genetic disorders. That is not the kind of autism currently causing a thoroughly justified national panic – the “idiopathic” autism, as this doctor put it, that occurs in children with no known vulnerabilities. (And the Clinic specializes in vaccinating the bejesus out of genetically vulnerable children. The only case of "idiopathic autism" I found among the Amish was taken from her home by child services and vaccinated by the clinic. She returned home fully autistic. See her photo in our book. Draw your own conclusions.)
There was a fragment of a part of an ongoing study presented at IMFAR a couple of years ago in Philadelphia – I took the train over there to see for myself – that at least so far is pretty thin gruel for the you-betcha-the-Amish-are-loaded-up-with-Autism crowd. Of nine cases identified so far, three were from the same family and all had dysmorphic features similar to the father's that, the researchers acknowledged to me, suggested a genetic problem (not infrequent among the Amish due to their closed gene pool). A health professional I brought over to look at the poster presentation thought this family had signs of something called Menkes disease, an X-linked neurodegenerative disorder of impaired copper transport. Not too idiopathic in my book. (And a noted autism researcher told me he believes he has encountered this family at a conference, and that the mother reported all three regressed after the MMR. Two unvaccinated children were not affected.)
I wanted to interview the main author at IMFAR, who was standing with the poster of the fragment of the part of the ongoing study, but when I pulled out my tape recorder he demurred. The study wasn’t ready (although already widely cited). And vaccines? Anything about vaccines? They were going to get to that as part of the final report, he said.
Meanwhile even the most adamant vaccine defenders can’t get away from the glaring lack of full-syndrome, idiopathic, whatever-you-want to call it autism of the kind that’s ripping childhood apart in the rest of the country.
Max Wiznitzer (you can practically hear the hisses from AOA readers oozing out of your laptop) is a prime witness. Wiznitzer, of University Hospitals in Cleveland, was an expert witness for the government against the families who filed in the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program.
But on CNN’s Larry King in 2009, Wiznitzer said the rate of autism in northeastern Ohio, the nation’s largest Amish community, was 1 in 10,000. He should know, he said: “I’m their neurologist.” Dr. Wiznitzer also said those Amish were vaccinated.
Back in 2005, I reported on a doctor with even closer connections to the Amish community who said the autism rate was very low: Of 15,000 Amish who live near Middlefield, Dr. Heng Wang was aware of just one who has autism. Wang was the medical director, and a physician and researcher, at the DDC Clinic for Special Needs Children, created specifically to treat the Amish in northeastern Ohio.
“I take care of all the children with special needs,” he said, putting him in a unique position to observe autism. The one case Wang had identified is a 12-year-old boy.
But unlike Wiznitzer – and four years earlier -- he said half the children in the area were vaccinated, half were not. The child with autism, he said, was vaccinated.
I first raised this issue -- fewer vaccine, less autism -- seven years ago this spring, when I wrote an article titled The Amish Anomaly that began, “Where are the autistic Amish? Here in Lancaster County, heart of Pennsylvania Dutch country, there should be well over 100 with some form of the disorder.
“I have come here to find them, but so far my mission has failed, and the very few I have identified raise some very interesting questions about some widely held views on autism.”
With the new allergy report and its implication for the low rate of autoimmune diseases among the Amish, aren't we right back where we started? As Al Neuharth would say: “Finally!”
Dan Olmsted is Editor of Age of Autism.