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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.

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