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AFRICAN HEALTH DIALOGUES: RISING RATES OF AUTISM IN AFRICA

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Over thirty years ago, a man named Victor Lotter took a tour of Africa looking for autism cases. He visited “collections” of mentally handicapped children in institutions in nine cities in six African countries (Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Zambia and South Africa) in hopes that he would be able to find evidence of autism in high concentrations of mentally impaired children. “

What Lotter found in Africa surprised him, namely that “the number of autistic children found was much smaller than expected.” Only 9 of the 1312 mentally handicapped children he saw in nine cities were autistic (a rate of 1 in 145, nearly the same as the autism rate today in the entire US childhood population!).  He had expected to see over 1 in 20. Around that time, clinicians in Nigeria and later in Kenya confirmed that autism indeed was present among African children but found it rare enough that it was worthwhile for them to give detailed profiles of just four and three cases, respectively.

 

But the search for African cases has continued sporadically, and has led to an interesting recent twist. A couple of years ago, one of the most doctrinaire “autism is genetic” American researchers, in a major break with orthodox doctrine, conceded the idea that there might be such a thing as regressive autism. Not in America, of course, but in Tanzania. A group led by Susan Folstein recently examined reports that previously typical children could acquire autism after a malaria infection. In a group of 14 autistic children, Folstein’s group conceded that in at least three cases “the relationship between onset of autism and severe malaria seems clear” and that in four additional cases there was a possible relationship. That implies that as many as half of the autism cases seen in African populations could be acquired and not genetic.. 

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