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Autism, Global Health, Research

Autism in Africa?

Autism has sometimes been described as a disease of industrialized high-technology societies. If that’s truly the case, it could have serious implications for our understanding of the disease. So I was troubled to read a post today on the blog Left Brain/Right Brain that shows a major gap in what we know about global incidence of Autism Spectrum Disorder, not to mention the possible lack of support for those with ASD in the developing world.

Apparently, no epidemiological studies have been done on autism in Africa. That’s a key finding in a review that was published in the July issue of the African Journal of Psychiatry by Muideen Bakare, MBBS, FMCPsych, of the Federal Neuro-Psychiatric Hospital in Nigeria and Kerim Munir, MD, of Boston’s Children’s Hospital. The two psychiatrists conducted searches of the Pubmed database for the period from January 2000 through December 2009. They found 12 papers addressing aspects of autism in Africa, but only two involved any epidemiological analysis that could give some sense of the scope of ASD on the continent. And one of those two papers was on Somalis in Sweden, while the other was a broader study of autism in the Middle East that included Tunisia and Egypt. After reviewing all 12 of the papers, the authors concluded:

Studies are required, specifically epidemiological studies, to define the magnitude of the problem of ASD as well as the characteristics of children with ASD in Africa, especially sub-Saharan Africa. These might also help answer the bothering question regarding the etiology of ASD and may also shed light on the reasons for possible differences in prevalence between geographical regions, if any exist. Africa also needs more policy making attention directed at child and adolescent mental health service provision, especially regarding the issues of childhood developmental disorders and intellectual disability.

11 Responses to “ Autism in Africa? ”

  1. Pam Mason Says:

    On this evidence, all that can be said is that it hasn’t been studied outside industrialized societies – that’s like me saying there are no daisies in France because I’ve never been there.

    Also, it is a life-long condition, not just one which affects children and adolescents. Adults who have it need help too.

  2. Maurine Meleck Says:

    Let’s clear up some things first.
    Autism is not a mental problem and does not belong in the DSM. It’s a metabolic disorder
    that affects every organ in the body and ASD children suffer from oxidative stress, immune dysfunction, encephalopathy, inflammatory bowel disease–to mention a few.
    In the past, children in industrialized nations have had many more vaccinations than those in under-developed countries, as they call it. But not to worry-Bill Gates will make sure that Third World Countires will get plenty of vaccines from now on-especially the ones with copious amounts of thimerosal that the US population is rejecting. So my guess is the numbers of those afflicted with autism will gow rapidly. You ought to read THE RIVER by Edward Hooper and see how the AIDS virus began. Couldn’t be the first polio vaccines tested on the poor Africans that couldn’t know better, could it?? Maurine Meleck SC

  3. Matt Carey Says:

    I appreciate you linking to our blog at LeftBrainRightBrain.

    The subject of autism and autism research in diverse populations (both within the US and internationally) is very interesting to me. One great resource from an anthropologists’ perspective is the book Unstrange Minds by Prof. Grinker at GWU. He explores autism in South Africa and Kenya as well as India, the U.S. and elsewhere.

    Not all family members of autistics agree. Certainly this is the case with myself and Ms. Meleck. Aside from her adherence to non-scientific ideas of causation and defintion of autism, I feel the need to point out that I strongly disagree with the characterization of a whole continent of people as “poor Africans that couldnÂ’t know better”.

    How one could write that boggles the mind.

  4. AutismNewsBeat Says:

    “(Autism) is a metabolic disorder that affects every organ in the body and ASD children suffer from oxidative stress…”

    It’s a good thing your community doesn’t recommend hyperbaric oxygen treatments for autism then!

  5. Kathy Silverstein Says:

    The author raises a very good point. We know from studies of Somalians in northern climates that geography seems to have some kind of effect or causation on autism levels. Studies of the African continent could yield very interesting data in regards to what, if any, impact geography has on autism – in addition, of course, to increasing much needed mental health services there. There are many support resources here in the US (I just saw a particularly nice list of them at the other day), but virtually none in Africa.

    I shudder to think of how hard it would be to have such a disability in a country where it is not recognized.

  6. Christofer Wärnlöf Says:

    To whom it may concern!

    I am interested in cultural/etnographic – comparative – studies of diagnois.

    Any kind of answer would be appreciated,


  7. Roxanne Says:

    Autism rates need to be studied more on a global level. Only then will we truly understand the condition more.

  8. Monica Mburu Says:

    I read this post with interest as I am from Kenya, East Africa, and I have a son with autism. I have also been instrumental in establishing an organisation – the Autism Society of Kenya – which was the first organisation here to tackle autism. That was established in 2003 and at that time autism was relatively unknown here. Now there are a couple of other groups that have come up. What I can say is that there are very many people with autism in this country. No research into the magnitutde has ever been carried out, but based on our awareness work through the country, we can see that the autism rates here are very high. There are definitely more people of all ages, with autism than any other developmental disability and of course this is cause for great concern because establishing services is so challenging.

  9. Reuben Says:

    I am on my initial stage of conducting a very comprehensive study for my PhD that among things will intend to find out the prevelence rate of autism in Tanzania and characteristics of autistic children in this part of the world.

    It is my hope that this study will break this gap of information particularly in African context.

  10. H.Nii-Adziri Wellington Says:

    I chanced on this website this evening as I did internet search on the phenomenon of autism in Africa. I found the articles and comments all interesting. I am studying the literature on ASD to prepare my inaugural lecture to address the topic: Architecture for Autism. My greatest concern and focus are on the management of the condition in the domestic and public built environments. Apart from the evidenced-based research undertaken by Prof Magda Mostafa, an architect in the American University of Cairo, I am not aware of any other work done on management of autism condition in the architectural space. Since the sensory inputs are critical factors in the wellnees of a person with autism condition, and can be controlled and manipulated by architectural design, I am proposing an interdisciplinary collaborative research by architects, laser scientists and technologists, environmental psychologists and care givers. Who is interested and who knows any philanthropy that can found such a project in Ghana? My inaugural is on 2nd April 2015 in Accra, Ghana to contribute to the Autism Awareness Month and the celebration of the UN International Year of Light and Light-Based Technologies.

  11. Azima Says:

    I think one of the challenges that medical professionals face in understanding the prevalence of autism in African countries is the culture. Invisible disabilities like autism are very stigmatizing and families tend not to seek for help. Disabilities like autism are seen as the work of enemies, evil spirits, sin and ancestral curses. As such, herbalists and native doctors are consulted while the child is kept hidden. The medical and public health professionals need to be educated on autism so that they are better equipped to help these individuals.


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