Brainstorm Health: Autism Rates Rise, Genetic Depression Risk, Bill Gates Flu Vaccine

April 27, 2018, 8:10 PM UTC

Good afternoon and happy Friday, readers! This is Sy.

A new CDC autism report finds that rates of autism are rising among U.S. children. Given the fraught history of the (consistently debunked) allegations that vaccines are tied to autism spectrum disorders, there may be an impulse in certain corners to bring up vaccinations as a potential root for this rise in diagnoses. The scientific consensus still resoundingly rejects that argument.

The autism-vaccine link theory goes back to before the turn of the century, when an infamous and ultimately retracted paper published in a prestigious medical journal made the claim. Its effect, however, has been long-lasting despite a concerted push by physicians to assure patients and parents of vaccines’ safety. U.S. states have seen a resurgence in preventable diseases like measles and whooping cough and led lawmakers to pass more stringent vaccine requirements. The rising number of autism diagnoses has the potential to exacerbate concerns about vaccines. (Again, these concerns aren’t substantiated by the science—for instance, a recent study by the Kaiser Permanente Northern California Division of Research found that children with autism are actually less likely to be fully vaccinated.)

But what does explain the rise? The CDC itself lays out a likely suspect: Under-diagnosis of the condition among certain populations—like black and Hispanic Americans—who are also regularly underrepresented in access to the health care system to begin with.

“Autism prevalence among black and Hispanic children is approaching that of white children,” explained Dr. Stuart Shapira, associate director for science at CDC’s National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities, in a statement on the latest CDC figures. “The higher number of black and Hispanic children now being identified with autism could be due to more effective outreach in minority communities and increased efforts to have all children screened for autism so they can get the services they need.”

That’s right: Marginally improved access to, and better representation of, some groups may actually lead to an “increase” in autism rates and other diagnoses. But in a sense, it really just means that we’re getting a fuller picture of what the underlying numbers are to begin with.

Read on for the day’s news, and enjoy your weekend.


44 genetic risk factors for depression. A massive worldwide study published in Nature Genetics (one that examined the genes of about 500,000 people) has pinpointed 44 different genetic variants associated with major depression. That includes 30 new variants, and the individuals examined in the study include people of all kinds of ethnic ancestry—a critical factor given the lack of diversity in many scientific studies. (Gizmodo)


China reverses course on cancer drug import tax. China in continuing its moves to take down trade barriers that could make it harder for cancer drugs to enter the country. China had already announced that it would eliminate tariffs on cancer treatments beginning next month; now, the nation's Finance Ministry has announced that it will cut the value added tax for these drugs down to 3% beginning May 1. (Reuters)


Bill Gates to donate $12 million to develop a universal flu vaccine. Billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates delivered yet another major speech on preventing global pandemics. And, par for the course, Gates is putting his money where his mouth is: the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is teaming up with Alphabet chief Larry Page to establish a $12 million fund for developing a universal flu vaccine. (Quartz)


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