An estimated one in 28 Somali school children have been diagnosed with autism – twice the normal rate in Minnesota and five times the national average. Dr. Wakefield believes the Somali community in Minnesota may even be the key to a cure.
Just last month he was in the Twin Cities recruiting Somali parents for a research study, even though he no longer has a medical license. Dr. Wakefield was careful to say he just wants to help finance that study.
Wakefield spoke to a room of anxious Somali parents his last time in town, spreading his message that the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine is linked to autism. It was a receptive audience, because many parents like Abdi Hassan, who has a son with autism, will tell you there is no autism in Somalia.
”It’s not a disease we have back home,” Hassan said. “Somalis call it an American disease.”
Yet their children now seem to be developing autism at an alarming rate. Dr. Wakefield told them he wants to help finance a study of Somali children in Minnesota to find out why, believing a vitamin D deficiency from Minnesota’s dark winters may explain the phenomenon.
Dr. Steven Miles with the Center for Bioethics at the University of Minnesota is no fan of Wakefield’s and believes Wakefield is exploiting the Somali community.
“His license wasn’t just suspended, it was ripped away permanently,” Dr. Miles said. “This is not the kind of charlatan we want responsible for conducting research in Minnesota.”
Yet, the Somali parents are just like any others who have children with autism, struggling to find answers and willing to listen to anyone who has a new approach.
Dr. Miles disputes the fact that there is no autism in Somalia. He says the health care system there, if you can call it that, wasn’t able to diagnose it. Yet the cluster of cases in the Somali community is enough for the CDC and the NIH to launch a study of Somali children in the Twin Cities to see if it is a real outbreak or a statistical fluke.