One year since its introduction to the world's autism community, the Global Autism Public Health Initiative (GAPH) once again took center stage in front of First Spouses and foreign dignitaries from around the world at Autism Speaks' World Focus on Autism event. An expert panel of autism service, research, and public health professionals demonstrated to the esteemed audience how science can provide the basis for addressing autism around the
world, but only when properly in tune with the awareness and service needs of local communities. The panelists focused on the changing global autism landscape from the days of dramatic stigmatization to the difference-making GAPH activities of today, concluding with a vision of the progress tomorrow holds.
Dr. Andy Shih, Vice President of Scientific Affairs at Autism Speaks opened the discussion by providing a brief overview of GAPH, driving home the importance of its three key goals: 1) to improve awareness of autism; 2) to increase capacity for autism research; and 3) to enhance access to services by providing community-based training in early diagnosis and intervention around the world. This set the stage for an informative look into the process of designing and implementing GAPH in a country as Dr. Liri Berisha, President of the Albanian Children's Foundation and wife of the Prime Minister of Albania, highlighted the activities surrounding GAPH-Albania.
Albania was one of the first countries to commit to a GAPH partnership with a formal collaborative agreement announced between Autism Speaks and the Albanian Children's Foundation on April 2, 2009, World Autism Awareness Day (WAAD). In less than six months, the partners have worked together to form a GAPH-Albania advisory team consisting of local and international experts in autism awareness, services, and research including assessment expert Dr. Deborah Fein from the University of Connecticut and renowned epidemiologist Dr. Eric Fombonne from McGill University. After a 3-day meeting in Tirana, the advisory team successfully developed a strategic set of recommendations for the design and implementation of GAPH-Albania. Specific objectives include the translation of autism screening and diagnostic instruments into Albanian and the use of those instruments to determine the frequency of autism among children in Albania. Dr. Berisha also announced that October 2009 will see the Albanian Children's Foundation hold a 2-day conference called "Autism: from causes to treatment" which will provide a broad overview of autism and training to a range of professionals on educational plans and clinical management for individuals with autism.
Among the event's most groundbreaking announcements, the following panelist, Dr. Young Shin Kim, epidemiologist from the Yale Child Study Center, announced the preliminary results of the first ever study examining autism prevalence in South Korea. Made possible by a research grant from Autism Speaks, Dr. Kim and her colleagues announced that initial findings show between 1 in 100 and 1 in 200 children in South Korea may have autism. These numbers are similar to the 1 in 150 statistic reported by the CDC in the United States, suggesting that autism may be just as common outside of the western world and in developing countries. The next step for Dr. Kim's team will be to investigate the potential genetic and environmental factors that may play a role in the occurrence of autism and this alarming statistic.
Already conducting such autism genetics and environmental factors research around the world is the Shafallah Medical Genetics Center (SGMC), research unit of the Shafallah Center for Children with Special Needs in Qatar. Panelist Dr. Hatem El-Shanti described to the audience that in addition to the research efforts of the SGMC, Shafallah is committed to developing an early detection and early intervention program and has already begun to campaign for this program nationwide. With the assistance of Autism Speaks' awareness team, on WAAD 2009, Shafallah successfully launched an awareness campaign targeting parents and professionals alike though media, websites, and national events.
Concluding the panel discussion was Dr. Ezra Susser, former chair of the Department of Epidemiology at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health and member of Autism Speaks' Scientific Advisory Committee. Dr. Susser described his international experience as a psychiatric epidemiologist and how the autism public health landscape has improved dramatically over time. Awareness and understanding of autism is at an all time high and the room full of dignitaries in front of him exemplified how the call for action is being answered. Dr. Susser emphasized that action focused on autism will also open the door to improving global public health for all developmental disabilities and other health issues of childhood development.
Together, the panel demonstrated the scope of GAPH activities around the world and the impact these activities have had on the current state and future direction of autism public health. The overarching message however was that no one organization, or government, or parent can accomplish this alone. Rather, improving global autism public health requires international collaboration, and the World Focus on Autism is only a first step in achieving unified support for current and future activities of GAPH. GAPH presents a possible solution for addressing the issues that plague autism communities around the world. As such GAPH generates hope for those communities and as Dr. Shih best summed it up, "hope is the greatest agent for change."