With apologies for opening the subject of the Amish and autism once again, a recent paper in the journal Pediatrics explores vaccination and the Amish: Underimmunization in Ohio’s Amish: Parental Fears Are a Greater Obstacle Than Access to Care. Seth Mnookin has already discussed this at The Panic Virus at PLoS blogs in Anecdotal Amish-don’t-vaccinate claims disproved by fact-based study.
What is worrisome here is the fact that the nderimmunization amongst the Amish is resulting from parental fears. In a very different study from 2001, Haemophilus influenzae Type b Disease Among Amish Children in Pennsylvania: Reasons for Persistent Disease, most Amish parents who chose to not vaccinate were citing availability and convenience rather than fear as the reason.
To repeat–in 10 years the reasons for non-vaccinating amongst the Amish have changed from convenience to fear. We can’t say exactly why, but it seems quite plausible that the focus on autism, vaccines and the Amish could have played a role.
Given that the “Amish Anomaly” notion seems destined to linger on, I have written up another summary of the history and the facts of the story.
Dan Olmsted, now the owner of the Age of Autism, was once an editor for UPI. It was during his UPI time that he took on the autism/vaccine question that has since dominated his professional life. Back in 2005 he ran a series of stories which investigated the proposed link between autism and vaccines and, in specific, mercury. It was right around the time that the David Kirby/Lyn Redwood book “Evidence of Harm, Mercury in Vaccines and the Autism Epidemic: A Medical Controversy.” was published. This was likely the high water mark for the public’s acceptance of the vaccines-causation idea.
One of the ideas that Mr. Olmsted explored was that of the Amish. He started with the belief that they don’t vaccinate and set out to investigate whether this correlated with a lower autism prevalence. The idea of the Amish being a largely unvaccinated population was set out years earlier. David Kirby describes in Evidence of Harm how Lyn Redwood of SafeMinds discussed this in a presentation she made to congress in the year 2000.
Mr. Olmsted described his investigation starting in a piece, The Age of Autism: Mercury and the Amish . There was plenty of data even then which Mr. Olmsted could have considered which went against his hypothesis. Since then even more data has mounted against the idea.
And, yet, it persists. Often the “Amish don’t vaccinate and they don’t have autism” story pops up in internet discussions following news stories. Books have incorporated the idea. Of course it ends up in alternative medicine books on autism such as Kenneth Bock’s “Healing the New Childhood Epidemics: Autism, ADHD, Asthma, and Allergies”. The idea can be found in other boos as well, including “Timeless Secrets of Health and Rejuvenation” (2007) and “Cry for Health: Health: the Casualty of Modern Times” (2010). Again, this is a reason to revisit the debunking of this myth. The myth lives on, even in the face of facts.
In his 2005 UPI article, Mr. Olmsted started out with the assumption that the Amish don’t vaccinate. He set out to see if he could find autistics amongst the Amish, but didn’t look into the vaccination question with any depth:
So I turned to the 22,000 Amish in Lancaster County, Pa. I didn’t expect to find many, if any, vaccinated Amish: they have a religious exemption from the otherwise mandatory U.S. vaccination schedule.
As is well known now, the Amish do not have a religious exemption from the vaccine schedule. They do not have a religious prohibition against vaccination.
This was something Mr. Olmsted could easily have confirmed at the time. He might have checked the 1993 book Amish Society by John Andrew Hostetler (1993), in which he would have found the following statements about medicine:
“Some are more reluctant than others to accept immunization, but it is rare that an Amish person will cite a biblical text to object to a demonstrated medical need…” ….””If the Amish are slow to accept preventive measures, it doesn’t mean they religiously opposed to them…”
He might have made more than a cursory effort to contact people at the Clinic for Special Children in Strasburg, Pennsylvania. The Clinic, aside from serving special needs children (including autistics) runs vaccine clinics and has for some many years. In a piece explaining Mr. Olmsted’s failures, Mark Blaxill (also of the Age of Autism) explained that the Clinic did not return Mr. Olmsted’s phone call. No mention is given why Mr. Olmsted didn’t go to the clinic in his visits to Lancaster County
Had Mr. Olmsted done so, he would have known that this statement, again from his 2005 piece, was incorrect when he relied on a source who claimed a very low immunization rate:
That mother said a minority of younger Amish have begun getting their children vaccinated, though a local doctor who has treated thousands of Amish said the rate is still less than 1 percent.
He also made a misleading statement:
When German measles broke out among Amish in Pennsylvania in 1991, the CDC reported that just one of 51 pregnant women they studied had ever been vaccinated against it.
What is left vague in this statement was the fact that the 51 pregnant women were those who contracted German measles. Not surprising that those infected were largely unvaccinated. This doesn’t tell us what fraction of the whole population were vaccinated though, and is quite misleading.
One might wonder why Mr. Olmsted was not aware that the Amish participated in the eradication of Polio. Conversely, he might have questioned how polio was eradicated if the Amish did not vaccinate. Here is a March of Dimes photo from a 1959 vaccine clinic:
An article available to Mr. Olmsted at the time of his 2005 article, Haemophilus influenzae Type b Disease Among Amish Children in Pennsylvania: Reasons for Persistent Disease, discussed the reasons why Amish parents did not vaccinate their children. While some did cite “religious or philosophical objections”, the majority said they would vaccinate if “vaccination were offered locally”:
Among Amish parents who did not vaccinate their children, only 25% (13 of 51) identified either religious or philosophical objections as a factor; 51% (26 of 51) reported that vaccinating was not a priority compared with other activities of daily life. Seventy-three percent (36 of 49) would vaccinate their children if vaccination were offered locally.
Since Mr. Olmsted’s original series, more data has come in refuting the “Amish Anomaly”. In 2006, a paper was published: Vaccination usage among an old-order Amish community in Illinois. Here is the abstract:
The Old-Order Amish have low rates of vaccination and are at increased risk for vaccine-preventable diseases. A written survey was mailed to all Amish households in the largest Amish community in Illinois inquiring about their vaccination status and that of their children. In this survey, the Amish do not universally reject vaccines, adequate vaccination coverage in Amish communities can be achieved, and Amish objections to vaccines might not be for religious reasons.
It is clear that the Amish do vaccinate and that it would have been simple for Mr. Olmsted to find accurate information about this at the time. It was certainly more difficult for Mr. Olmsted to ascertain what the prevalence of autism might be amongst the Amish. He made the assertion: ““there are only a few of them [autistic Amish] in the United States”.
Of the “few” Amish autistics Mr. Olmsted could find, six were being treated by Lawrence Leichtman. The children were unvaccinated but the doctor who reported them to Mr. Olmsted attributed their autism to high mercury levels. This is not surprising as Dr. Leichtman was one of the early alt-med practitioners working in autism, being part of the secretin fad of the 1990’s. One wonders if the “elevated mercury” levels in these children would stand up to tests performed by qualified medical toxicologists.
Another six autistic Amish, nearly under Mr. Olmsted’s nose at the time of his article, were being treated by the Clinic for Special Children in Lancaster, PA. Six children who had PDD or Autism were at that time being treated and written up for a study in the New England Journal of Medicine. They were missed by Mr. Olmsted. He has since argued that these children are syndromic and, thus, somehow not as relevant to his story. Those arguments aside, this was a clear miss for Mr. Olmsted.
In 2010, a study was presented at IMFAR: Prevalence Rates of Autism Spectrum Disorders Among the Old Order Amish
Preliminary data have identified the presence of ASD in the Amish community at a rate of approximately 1 in 271 children using standard ASD screening and diagnostic tools although some modifications may be in order. Further studies are underway to address the cultural norms and customs that may be playing a role in the reporting style of caregivers, as observed by the ADI. Accurate determination of the ASD phenotype in the Amish is a first step in the design of genetic studies of ASD in this population.
A preliminary number of 1 in 271 is a far cry from “little” or no autism amongst the Amish. Given the limitations of working within a community like the Amish, it is surprisingly close to the 1 in 100 often cited as the autism prevalence estimate for the general U.S. population. The study was being prepared for submission when I checked with the lead author last fall. It will be interesting to see what the final number is obtained for the prevalence.
The IMFAR abstract was available, I believe, before Dan Olmsted’s book, The Age of Autism, went to press. Instead of including this information, he chose to paint autism as rare amongst the Amish using quotes he obtained in 2005 and unsupported statements like, “the most aggressive possible count of autistic Amish comes to fewer than 20 cases, which would give us a rate of no more than 1 in 10,000.” It seems unlikely, given the low sales figures, that The Age of Autism will be reprinted. If that should happen, I wonder if Mr. Olmsted will correct this misinformation. The facts are clearly against him. Certainly, his review of internet sources and cursory tour of Lancaster County hardly counts as “aggressive”.
The “Amish don’t vaccinate and don’t have autism” idea was never very well supported. Now, with more data in, it is just plain wrong. It would be a good and honorable thing for Mr. Olmsted himself to make this clear. Good. Honorable. And not going to happen.