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The Age of Autism: ‘A pretty big secret’
UPI Senior Editor
CHICAGO, Dec. 7
(UPI) — It’s a far piece from the horse-and-buggies of
Lancaster County, Pa., to the cars and freeways of Cook County, Ill.
thousands of children cared for by Homefirst Health Services in metropolitan
Chicago have at least two things in common with thousands of Amish children in
rural Lancaster: They have never been vaccinated. And they don’t have
"We have a fairly large practice. We have about 30,000 or 35,000
children that we’ve taken care of over the years, and I don’t think we have a
single case of autism in children delivered by us who never received vaccines,"
said Dr. Mayer Eisenstein, Homefirst’s medical director who founded the practice
in 1973. Homefirst doctors have delivered more than 15,000 babies at home, and
thousands of them have never been vaccinated.
The few autistic children
Homefirst sees were vaccinated before their families became patients, Eisenstein
said. "I can think of two or three autistic children who we’ve delivered their
mother’s next baby, and we aren’t really totally taking care of that child —
they have special care needs. But they bring the younger children to us. I don’t
have a single case that I can think of that wasn’t vaccinated."
autism rate in Illinois public schools is 38 per 10,000, according to state
Education Department data; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention puts
the national rate of autism spectrum disorders at 1 in 166 — 60 per
"We do have enough of a sample," Eisenstein said. "The numbers
are too large to not see it. We would absolutely know. We’re all family doctors.
If I have a child with autism come in, there’s no communication. It’s
frightening. You can’t touch them. It’s not something that anyone would
No one knows what causes autism, but federal health authorities
say it isn’t childhood immunizations. Some parents and a small minority of
doctors and scientists, however, assert vaccines are responsible.
column has been looking for autism in never-vaccinated U.S. children in an
effort to shed light on the issue. We went to Chicago to meet with Eisenstein at
the suggestion of a reader, and we also visited Homefirst’s office in northwest
suburban Rolling Meadows. Homefirst has four other offices in the Chicago area
and a total of six doctors.
Eisenstein stresses his observations are not
scientific. "The trouble is this is just anecdotal in a sense, because what if
every autistic child goes somewhere else and (their family) never calls us or
they moved out of state?"
In practice, that’s unlikely to account for the
pronounced absence of autism, says Eisenstein, who also has a bachelor’s degree
in statistics, a master’s degree in public health and a law degree.
Homefirst follows state immunization mandates, but Illinois allows
religious exemptions if parents object based either on tenets of their faith or
specific personal religious views. Homefirst does not exclude or discourage such
families. Eisenstein, in fact, is author of the book "Don’t Vaccinate Before You
Educate!" and is critical of the CDC’s vaccination policy in the 1990s, when
several new immunizations were added to the schedule, including Hepatitis B as
early as the day of birth. Several of the vaccines — HepB included — contained
a mercury-based preservative that has since been phased out of most childhood
vaccines in the United States.
Medical practices with Homefirst’s
approach to immunizations are rare. "Because of that, we tend to attract
families that have questions about that issue," said Dr. Paul Schattauer, who
has been with Homefirst for 20 years and treats "at least" 100 children a
Schattauer seconded Eisenstein’s observations. "All I know is in my
practice I don’t see autism. There is no striking 1-in-166," he
Earlier this year we reported the same phenomenon in the mostly
unvaccinated Amish. CDC Director Dr. Julie Gerberding told us the Amish "have
genetic connectivity that would make them different from populations that are in
other sectors of the United States." Gerberding said, however, studies "could
and should be done" in more representative unvaccinated groups — if they could
be found and their autism rate documented.
Chicago is America’s
prototypical "City of Big Shoulders," to quote Carl Sandburg, and Homefirst’s
mostly middle-class families seem fairly representative. A substantial number
are conservative Christians who home-school their children. They are mostly
white, but the Homefirst practice also includes black and Hispanic families and
non-home-schooling Jews, Catholics and Muslims.
They tend to be better
educated, follow healthier diets and breast-feed their children much longer than
the norm — half of Homefirst’s mothers are still breast-feeding at two years.
Also, because Homefirst relies less on prescription drugs including antibiotics
as a first line of treatment, these children have less exposure to other
medicines, not just vaccines.
Schattauer, interviewed at the Rolling
Meadows office, said his caseload is too limited to draw conclusions about a
possible link between vaccines and autism. "With these numbers you’d have a hard
time proving or disproving anything," he said. "You can only get a feeling about
"In no way would I be an advocate to stand up and say we need to look
at vaccines, because I don’t have the science to say that," Schattauer said.
"But I don’t think the science is there to say that it’s not."
said Homefirst’s patients also have significantly less childhood asthma and
juvenile diabetes compared to national rates. An office manager who has been
with Homefirst for 17 years said she is aware of only one case of severe asthma
in an unvaccinated child.
"Sometimes you feel frustrated because you feel
like you’ve got a pretty big secret," Schattauer said. He argues for more
research on all those disorders, independent of political or business pressures.
The asthma rate among Homefirst patients is so low it was noticed by the
Blue Cross group with which Homefirst is affiliated, according to
"In the alternative-medicine network which Homefirst is part
of, there are virtually no cases of childhood asthma, in contrast to the overall
Blue Cross rate of childhood asthma which is approximately 10 percent," he said.
"At first I thought it was because they (Homefirst’s children) were breast-fed,
but even among the breast-fed we’ve had asthma. We have virtually no asthma if
you’re breast-fed and not vaccinated."
Because the diagnosis of asthma is
based on emergency-room visits and hospital admissions, Eisenstein said,
Homefirst’s low rate is hard to dispute. "It’s quantifiable — the definition is
not reliant on the doctor’s perception of asthma."
Several studies have
found a risk of asthma from vaccination; others have not. Studies that include
never-vaccinated children generally find little or no asthma in that
Earlier this year Florida pediatrician Dr. Jeff Bradstreet said
there is virtually no autism in home-schooling families who decline to vaccinate
for religious reasons — lending credence to Eisenstein’s
"It’s largely non-existent," said Bradstreet, who treats
children with autism from around the country. "It’s an extremely rare
Bradstreet has a son whose autism he attributes to a vaccine
reaction at 15 months. His daughter has been home-schooled, he describes himself
as a "Christian family physician," and he knows many of the leaders in the
"There was this whole subculture of folks who went
into home-schooling so they would never have to vaccinate their kids," he said.
"There’s this whole cadre who were never vaccinated for religious
In that subset, he said, "unless they were massively exposed to
mercury through lots of amalgams (mercury dental fillings in the mother) and/or
big-time fish eating, I’ve not had a single case."
authorities and mainstream medical groups emphatically dismiss any link between
autism and vaccines, including the mercury-based preservative thimerosal. Last
year a panel of the Institute of Medicine, part of the National Academies, said
there is no evidence of such a link, and funding should henceforth go to
Thimerosal, which is 49.6 percent ethyl mercury by
weight, was phased out of most U.S. childhood immunizations beginning in 1999,
but the CDC recommends flu shots for pregnant women and last year began
recommending them for children 6 to 23 months old. Most of those shots contain
Thimerosal-preserved vaccines are currently being injected
into millions of children in developing countries around the world. "My mandate
… is to make sure at the end of the day that 100,000,000 are immunized …
this year, next year and for many years to come … and that will have to be
with thimerosal-containing vaccines," said John Clements of the World Health
Organization at a June 2000 meeting called by the CDC.
That meeting was
held to review data that thimerosal might be linked with autism and other
neurological problems. But in 2004 the Institute of Medicine panel said evidence
against a link is so strong that health authorities, "whether in the United
States or other countries, should not include autism as a potential risk" when
formulating immunization policies.
But where is the simple,
straightforward study of autism in never-vaccinated U.S. children? Based on our
admittedly anecdotal and limited reporting among the Amish, the home-schooled
and now Chicago’s Homefirst, that may prove to be a significant omission.
This ongoing series on the roots and rise of autism welcomes
comment. E-mail: email@example.com
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