Swedish researchers explore Somali-autism link

Swedish researchers want to gain access to a databank of blood tests taken from all babies born in Sweden in order to shed light on an apparent heightened incidence of autism among the country's Somali population.

The researchers at the Autism centre for small children in Stockholm want to see if the samples contained in the so-called PKU register, which is used on newborns to detect a slew of illnesses, can explain the differences in levels of autism between children of Somali and children of Swedish origin.

“We want to look at the vitamin D levels at a very early stage in children who are later diagnosed with autism,” Elisabeth Fernell at the Autism centre for small children told the Dagens Nyheter (DN) daily.

If access to the database is approved, the tests will be conducted during the spring and include all of the autistic Somali children currently living in Stockholm, the newspaper reported.

The database is protected by law and access can only be granted on approval by an ethical council and then with the permission of each and every one of those to be tested, or if under the age of consent, their legal guardian.

Elisabeth Fernell argued that the study is unique and that results will first become known in the autumn when the samples have returned from the laboratory in Australia where they will be sent for tests.

The lack of sunlight in Sweden, combined with the use of sun protection creams and general precautions taken to avoid direct sun exposure is known to cause vitamin D deficiencies. Vitamin D deficiencies could be a contributing factor to the incidence of depression and some experts believe, autism.

Somalis living in Sweden have dubbed autism, “The Swedish disease,” as it has become an increasingly common occurrence among Somali children that have moved to Sweden.

The incidence is far higher than for Somali children resident in Somalia, something which researchers theorize may be related to differences in the amount of sunlight between Sweden and the east African country.

The western world has seen a dramatic increase in autism in recent years and Sweden has followed this trend. Around 1 percent of the Swedish population suffers from this neurological condition. In the US, the diagnosis of autism is increasing at a rate of 10-17 percent per year.

Researchers have long struggled to explain the dramatic increase.

Some have focused on the incidence of mercury in vaccines, others have focused on the triple MMR vaccine, although the current scientific consensus has found no evidence to support either of these theories. Others have meanwhile blamed the sedentary habits of western children and modern food habits.

Another explanation may be that changes to how the condition is diagnosed lie behind the dramatic increase. Regardless, a more complex picture of the combination of genetic, environmental and social factors behind the condition is starting to emerge.

Elisabeth Fernell hopes that the results of their study will help to shed light on the situation and enable doctors working in maternity wards to act fast.

“We hope that the results get to the physicians and that the health authorities check vitamin D levels for those with dark skins as Sweden is a country with very little sun,” Fernell said to DN.

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