Issue Date: June 25, 2007
The story on autism, a complex spectrum of disorders, is timely and appropriate (C&EN, May 14, page 32). Autism manifests at birth or is recognized in childhood. Although autism is not life-threatening, the economic and social burden is enormous, and autism will require much research.
Given the complexity of autism and its many subclasses, each subclass population becomes even smaller. Diseases whose prevalence is one in 25,000 or one in 8,000 people are no less important and deserve no less attention than common diseases. There are more than 6,600 rare diseases in the U.S.; for some, only a handful of people are affected, but the combined population of people with rare diseases is more than 15% of the population in the U.S. alone.
Total funding received from the National Institutes of Health for orphan diseases, particularly for understanding the cause of disease, is extremely small compared with the funding for mainstream diseases. Because there are no economic incentives, not many drug companies are interested in understanding the etiology of rare diseases. Government and the public should support such research, at least to its proportionality with common diseases.
I enjoyed the article on autism. In my 12 years of secondary school, 10 years of college, and 49 years working with youth groups, including five years helping elementary school students who had trouble with reading, I had never seen anyone with autism until the 1990s or later. Then I began seeing children with autism in schools, churches, and shopping centers.
While this is not a statistical study, it is enough to make me think that autism is something of recent origin, and its increased incidence is cause for alarm. I applaud any studies to help determine the cause and a cure for autism.
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