CHICAGO, Dec. 7 (UPI) -- It's a far piece from the horse-and-buggies of
Lancaster County, Pa., to the cars and freeways of Cook County, Ill.
But thousands of children cared for by Homefirst Health Services in
metropolitan Chicago have at least two things in common with thousands
of Amish children in rural Lancaster: They have never been vaccinated.
And they don't have autism.
"We have a fairly large practice. We have about 30,000 or
35,000 children that we've taken care of over the years, and I don't
think we have a single case of autism in children delivered by us who
never received vaccines," said Dr. Mayer Eisenstein, Homefirst's
medical director who founded the practice in 1973. Homefirst doctors
have delivered more than 15,000 babies at home, and thousands of them
have never been vaccinated.
The few autistic children Homefirst sees were vaccinated
before their families became patients, Eisenstein said. "I can think of
two or three autistic children who we've delivered their mother's next
baby, and we aren't really totally taking care of that child -- they
have special care needs. But they bring the younger children to us. I
don't have a single case that I can think of that wasn't vaccinated."
The autism rate in Illinois public schools is 38 per 10,000,
according to state Education Department data; the Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention puts the national rate of autism spectrum
disorders at 1 in 166 -- 60 per 10,000.
"We do have enough of a sample," Eisenstein said. "The
numbers are too large to not see it. We would absolutely know. We're
all family doctors. If I have a child with autism come in, there's no
communication. It's frightening. You can't touch them. It's not
something that anyone would miss."
No one knows what causes autism, but federal health
authorities say it isn't childhood immunizations. Some parents and a
small minority of doctors and scientists, however, assert vaccines are
This column has been looking for autism in never-vaccinated
U.S. children in an effort to shed light on the issue. We went to
Chicago to meet with Eisenstein at the suggestion of a reader, and we
also visited Homefirst's office in northwest suburban Rolling Meadows.
Homefirst has four other offices in the Chicago area and a total of six
Eisenstein stresses his observations are not scientific.
"The trouble is this is just anecdotal in a sense, because what if
every autistic child goes somewhere else and (their family) never calls
us or they moved out of state?"
In practice, that's unlikely to account for the pronounced
absence of autism, says Eisenstein, who also has a bachelor's degree in
statistics, a master's degree in public health and a law degree.
Homefirst follows state immunization mandates, but Illinois
allows religious exemptions if parents object based either on tenets of
their faith or specific personal religious views. Homefirst does not
exclude or discourage such families. Eisenstein, in fact, is author of
the book "Don't Vaccinate Before You Educate!" and is critical of the
CDC's vaccination policy in the 1990s, when several new immunizations
were added to the schedule, including Hepatitis B as early as the day
of birth. Several of the vaccines -- HepB included -- contained a
mercury-based preservative that has since been phased out of most
childhood vaccines in the United States.
Medical practices with Homefirst's approach to immunizations
are rare. "Because of that, we tend to attract families that have
questions about that issue," said Dr. Paul Schattauer, who has been
with Homefirst for 20 years and treats "at least" 100 children a week.
Schattauer seconded Eisenstein's observations. "All I know
is in my practice I don't see autism. There is no striking 1-in-166,"
Earlier this year we reported the same phenomenon in the
mostly unvaccinated Amish. CDC Director Dr. Julie Gerberding told us
the Amish "have genetic connectivity that would make them different
from populations that are in other sectors of the United States."
Gerberding said, however, studies "could and should be done" in more
representative unvaccinated groups -- if they could be found and their
autism rate documented.
Chicago is America's prototypical "City of Big Shoulders,"
to quote Carl Sandburg, and Homefirst's mostly middle-class families
seem fairly representative. A substantial number are conservative
Christians who home-school their children. They are mostly white, but
the Homefirst practice also includes black and Hispanic families and
non-home-schooling Jews, Catholics and Muslims.
They tend to be better educated, follow healthier diets and
breast-feed their children much longer than the norm -- half of
Homefirst's mothers are still breast-feeding at two years. Also,
because Homefirst relies less on prescription drugs including
antibiotics as a first line of treatment, these children have less
exposure to other medicines, not just vaccines.
Schattauer, interviewed at the Rolling Meadows office, said
his caseload is too limited to draw conclusions about a possible link
between vaccines and autism. "With these numbers you'd have a hard time
proving or disproving anything," he said. "You can only get a feeling
"In no way would I be an advocate to stand up and say we
need to look at vaccines, because I don't have the science to say
that," Schattauer said. "But I don't think the science is there to say
that it's not."
Schattauer said Homefirst's patients also have significantly
less childhood asthma and juvenile diabetes compared to national rates.
An office manager who has been with Homefirst for 17 years said she is
aware of only one case of severe asthma in an unvaccinated child.
"Sometimes you feel frustrated because you feel like you've
got a pretty big secret," Schattauer said. He argues for more research
on all those disorders, independent of political or business pressures.
The asthma rate among Homefirst patients is so low it was
noticed by the Blue Cross group with which Homefirst is affiliated,
according to Eisenstein.
"In the alternative-medicine network which Homefirst is part
of, there are virtually no cases of childhood asthma, in contrast to
the overall Blue Cross rate of childhood asthma which is approximately
10 percent," he said. "At first I thought it was because they
(Homefirst's children) were breast-fed, but even among the breast-fed
we've had asthma. We have virtually no asthma if you're breast-fed and
Because the diagnosis of asthma is based on emergency-room
visits and hospital admissions, Eisenstein said, Homefirst's low rate
is hard to dispute. "It's quantifiable -- the definition is not reliant
on the doctor's perception of asthma."
Several studies have found a risk of asthma from vaccination;
others have not. Studies that include never-vaccinated children
generally find little or no asthma in that group.
Earlier this year Florida pediatrician Dr. Jeff Bradstreet
said there is virtually no autism in home-schooling families who
decline to vaccinate for religious reasons -- lending credence to
"It's largely non-existent," said Bradstreet, who treats
children with autism from around the country. "It's an extremely rare
Bradstreet has a son whose autism he attributes to a vaccine
reaction at 15 months. His daughter has been home-schooled, he
describes himself as a "Christian family physician," and he knows many
of the leaders in the home-school movement.
"There was this whole subculture of folks who went into
home-schooling so they would never have to vaccinate their kids," he
said. "There's this whole cadre who were never vaccinated for religious
In that subset, he said, "unless they were massively exposed
to mercury through lots of amalgams (mercury dental fillings in the
mother) and/or big-time fish eating, I've not had a single case."
Federal health authorities and mainstream medical groups
emphatically dismiss any link between autism and vaccines, including
the mercury-based preservative thimerosal. Last year a panel of the
Institute of Medicine, part of the National Academies, said there is no
evidence of such a link, and funding should henceforth go to
Thimerosal, which is 49.6 percent ethyl mercury by weight,
was phased out of most U.S. childhood immunizations beginning in 1999,
but the CDC recommends flu shots for pregnant women and last year began
recommending them for children 6 to 23 months old. Most of those shots
Thimerosal-preserved vaccines are currently being injected
into millions of children in developing countries around the world. "My
mandate ... is to make sure at the end of the day that 100,000,000 are
immunized ... this year, next year and for many years to come ... and
that will have to be with thimerosal-containing vaccines," said John
Clements of the World Health Organization at a June 2000 meeting called
by the CDC.
That meeting was held to review data that thimerosal might
be linked with autism and other neurological problems. But in 2004 the
Institute of Medicine panel said evidence against a link is so strong
that health authorities, "whether in the United States or other
countries, should not include autism as a potential risk" when
formulating immunization policies.
But where is the simple, straightforward study of autism in
never-vaccinated U.S. children? Based on our admittedly anecdotal and
limited reporting among the Amish, the home-schooled and now Chicago's
Homefirst, that may prove to be a significant omission.