I was not planning to do a blog about immunization and autism. However, an article posted by a social media friend, along with comments from US Senator Rand Paul made recently, prompted my response. The article makes two claims about Amish, immunization and autism (presented in questions) in the title; and both claims turn out to be false.
Claim: Amish Do Not Vaccinate
It seemed plausible at first brush, especially given that this small Christian sect mandates an austere lifestyle and rejects many modern conveniences, that they would also not vaccinate. However, I have an advantage in that I know some Amish people. But, more significantly, I have a sister (Dr. Olivia K. Wenger, MD) who led a study on Amish and their attitudes towards vaccinations.
The research of Dr. Wenger and her colleagues, although addressing primarily the opinions of Amish parents about vaccinations and not vaccination rates, is sufficient to disprove the idea that Amish do not vaccinate. This is some of what they found:
“Among 359 respondents, most (68%) stated that all of their children had received at least one vaccine, and 14% of those surveyed said their children had received no vaccines.”
Amish, in fact most who responded in the study cited above, do vaccinate. So the idea that Amish do not vaccinate is a myth and lie. That false claim alone is enough reason to dismiss any other claim found in the article, but in case you are unconvinced, I will address the other claim in the title as well.
Claim: Amish Do Not ‘Get’ Autism
The anti-vaccination article claims there are only three known cases of autism amongst Amish people. Again, I could’ve accepted this as valid, but mostly because there’s a strong possibility of autism being undiagnosed in this community that is as insular and closed as the Amish community.
However, this too was easily refutable despite no studies directly addressing the topic. I found research, by Dr. D. Holmes Morton, MD and others, that triples the number of cases of Amish children with autism symptoms:
“In March 2006, Drs. Kevin
Strauss, Holmes Morton and others documented 9 autistic Amish children, which could raise the autism rate of Lancaster Amish community Olmstead supposedly investigated to almost 1/5,000 all by themselves.”
So, both claims are untrue based in readily available evidence. Unfortunately stories like this are posted as true over and over again by those who are anti-vaccination or sympathetic. It is soaked up as proof of a link between autism and vaccines, yet it is demonstrably false information.
If your primary cause is truth, then carefully vet your sources!
As a believer in individual freedom, religious liberty and one who is respectful of conscience, I am doubly offended by articles like this. Quite frankly I am embarrassed to see these types of spurious claims circulated by those associated with my political leanings and religious faith.
Yes, opposition to vaccinations crosses political and religious lines, but is often a topic of conversation amongst my Libertarian and Christian peers. That some of them regularly repeat this sort of thing as legitimate or present it without question is a source of serious frustration for me. It does a disservice to even good questions about vaccinations.
Nothing is gained by linking falsehoods to what is true. If anything, people who are not ignorant of science will ‘throw the baby out with the bathwater’ and reject all that is associated with the falsehood. In a world awash with information, why should they waste time on a source that lied to them once and/or doesn’t carefully vet their sources?
“Do not spread false reports.” (Exodus 23:1a)
I realize not everyone is a scientific or critical thinker. I myself struggle with the discipline required for serious research and that is part of the reason I would not make a career of it. That said, we do need to take responsibility for the information we disseminate online and owe others our due diligence verifying claims with reliable sources before repeating it.
Sadly, anonymous articles with sensational headlines garner more attention than these unsung heroes who are actively creating solutions for sick Amish children. There are sources far more reliable than an article that does not even include the name of the author. Professionals like Dr. Morton and Dr. Wenger have dedicated their careers to studying Amish genetics and medical disorders.
Footnote: I cite secondary sources for the research of Dr. Wenger and Dr Morton, but if you want to read the original studies, the links are below: