Last night, Johan said, "You have to read this" and shoved the computer in my face, (thank you, New York Times digital.) Then, he said, "It really is a good thing that we live in the Congo."
And so, I read this opinion article on "Immune Disorders and Autism."
Autism isn't a topic that we discuss frequently at home. But immune disorders are. Well, semi-frequently. Remember this? I have what I referred to before as a "pesky post-baby Rheumatoid Arthritis issue." Luckily, I'm on some heavy-duty, but miraculous, drugs and, right now, I can do ridiculous things like this without a problem.
So, this article focuses on the theory that immune dysfunction is behind autism. Specifically, increased inflammation in the mother during pregnancy causing increased incidence of autism in the baby. The numbers quoted in the article are shocking: women with active Rheumatoid Arthritis have an 80% increased chance of having a baby with autism. Women with Celiac Disease? A 350% increased chance. Whew.
Remember my thoughts on having a third child?
The initial claims of the article, by Moises Velasquez-Manoff, made my head spin. But, the proposed solution to the issue made me laugh.
According to Velasquez-Manoff, we are too clean. Our immune systems are designed to be held in check by coexistent critters. Since parts of the world have become increasingly developed, we have successfully kicked out most the little buddies that traditionally (and evolutionarily) cozied-up in our guts. These worms, in turns out, may actually be more friend than foe.
About the same time as we have cleaned ourselves out, the incidence of asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, and other autoimmune disorders has risen. And the incidence of autism has skyrocketed - especially in urban centers with real nice, sophisticated waste management systems.
Many epidemiologists state that this increase is due to higher rates of diagnosis vs. actual existence. But, some look to the near-nonexistence of autism in the developing world and wonder...
...is it the worms?
There is some anecdotal evidence that whipworm infestations help autistic children. A real-live clinical trial is underway right now testing whether purposely infecting autistic adults with a super-sophisticated-medicalized (really) parasite will prove beneficial.
After I finished reading, Johan seriously said, "So, where can we find you some worms?" He seemed hopeful that a little therapeutic infestation of some of Congo's famous micro-creatures could reorganize my dysfunctional immune system.
I'm getting my own filtered water from now on...
Many experts remain skeptical at theories such as Velasquez-Manoff's. I am on-board however, with the idea that living in Congo is great for my family - even from a health perspective. Before we left, folks begged us to reconsider...asking us to "think of the children!" The malaria! The yellow fever! The dysentery! We take plenty of precautions, for certain, but I like knowing that living in a far-from-sterile environment isn't all scary...it might actually be helpful.
There is a oft-told story that floats around missionary and international aid worker circles: A child, born in the U.S., grows up in Africa. He decides to be a doctor and goes back to America for med school. In an immunology course, all the students had to give their own blood to be tested for antibodies - just for curiosity and comparison. The young man who grew up in Africa had immunities beyond belief. His professors were gobsmacked. Everyone is amazed at the power of African dirt.
Maybe it's just lore. Maybe I latch on to such stories to reassure myself that my decision to live in Kinshasa is a good one for my kids. But, maybe it's true. Maybe our immune systems - even my messed-up one - are a little better off for a few worms.