Outbreak

Thwarted by the prevailing scientific attitudes, Kreft has found she needs a different course of action to get the public’s attention. Here a local, and famous, precedent exists. The better analogy for Kreft, ultimately, may not be to Erin Brockovich but to a Woburn housewife named Anne Anderson.

Nearly 30 years ago, Anderson found similar patterns with cancer in her Pine Street neighborhood, as famously chronicled in the bestselling book and movie A Civil Action. After her three-year-old son, Jimmy, was diagnosed with childhood leukemia, she noticed there were an unusual number of children—12 in all—getting sick and dying in her part of town. Anne Anderson suspected the water in the nearby municipal wells was the culprit, and her persistence led her to a woman named Suzanne Condon, an environmental epidemiologist and now director of environmental health at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. It was Condon who determined that leukemia rates were indeed abnormally high in east Woburn. She then linked the cluster to contaminant-laden water the mothers drank while pregnant.

As it happens, Ann Marie Kreft knows Suzanne Condon. They worked down the hall from each other at the Department of Public Health when Kreft was a health educator for cancer prevention. A year ago this month, on February 29, Kreft sent Condon a letter: "I am writing to ask for your help with a crisis that our neighborhood is encountering." She and Condon began corresponding by e-mail. In response to Kreft’s July letter to the Globe, other parents from across the state deluged Kreft’s in-box—a mom from Concord offering a tip about the five cases in her town, the worried professor sharing her report from Hingham, and so on. Kreft passed those messages on to Condon. Condon, wondering whether something might again be amiss in Massachusetts’ towns, told Kreft she would look into the numbers.

One night this past fall, Ann Marie Kreft swings into a Weston driveway and pulls up in front of a sprawling Nantucket-style mansion. It’s the home of Kevin Conley, chairman of the board of the Joslin Diabetes Center and owner of Conley & Company, an executive-recruiting firm that donates 25 percent of its profits to diabetes research. Inside, past the sweeping staircase curling off the grand entrance hall, Kreft accepts a glass of red wine from Conley and soon is chatting with his wife, Rikki. The Conleys have two daughters with type 1 diabetes. The girls are not part of Kreft’s Weston cluster (they were diagnosed years earlier), but the Conleys and Krefts have become dear friends because of the disease—and the Omni brand of insulin pump—their children share.

Tonight, roughly 12 residents of "Omniville," as Kreft calls her neighborhood, have gathered to discuss their research into diabetes and clusters over a decadent spread of sushi and fruit, brownies, and cheese pastries. The mothers (and they are almost all mothers) have come together twice before, but there is a notable undercurrent of nervous energy to this session.

Shannon Allen arrives 15 minutes late, her husband in tow. The rest of the guests are giddy as they shake hands and make small talk with the couple. Ray Allen, dressed casually in jeans and a white T-shirt, eventually folds himself onto a leather sofa and gracefully commandeers the conversation. He says he was shocked when he read Kreft’s letter in the Globe. He ran into another father on the golf course, whose daughter is in the Weston cluster, and knew he had to come tonight.

Kreft perches on the edge of the couch, gently cupping her goblet of wine, as she explains to the Allens what she’s learned about the neighborhood’s diabetes cases. "One thing that’s interesting to look at with us is that [on a map] five of us are in a straight line," she says. "And you can’t help but notice we’re hugging the [Charles] river, the golf course, the train tracks—everything right along the highway."

"I know what my gut tells me," Shannon says in a fast-paced, raspy voice. "After the diagnosis, all that I could think was that for the whole spring my kids were out in the backyard squirting each other with the hose and drinking out of the faucet. That was the first thing I thought: Oh my God. I am testing our water."

"But that’s the thing," Ray says. "It will take us to figure out what’s going on." He explains that while he was at the White House to meet President Bush after the championship in September, Illinois Congressman Tim Johnson introduced himself, relaying that his father has diabetes. Ray told Johnson about Kreft’s letter, about the seeming cluster in his neighborhood.

Ray looks around, and the other parents lean in, rapt. He says the congressman mentioned he had contacts at the CDC, and said he would get the Allens some answers.

That same day, Dr. Thomas Sinks, deputy director of the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry at the CDC, called Shannon at home. His office—which is separate from the CDC’s diabetes division—had never looked at the potential existence of type 1 clusters, but he wanted to be of service in any way he could. When Ray Allen later told Sinks about this evening’s meeting, Sinks offered to speak to the group by phone (Allen graciously turned him down); he also said he would put in a call to the state health department. (When contacted for this article, Sinks wouldn’t discuss the specifics of his conversations with the Allens, nor what he’ll be examining based on those conversations, but did confirm that the calls took place.)

Kreft nearly falls off the couch upon hearing Ray’s news. Despite the luck she’s had with Suzanne Condon, she knows firsthand how difficult it can be to get access to the CDC and its resources. "I just think we have the most incredible, unique, wonderful opportunity," she says, her face flushed. "I mean, wow. I mean, how good is this? This is just amazing." Shannon agrees. "As horrible as this is, I told Ray, ‘Things have to happen to people who have a voice that can be heard in order for it to matter to everyone else.’"

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  • Ingrid

    My child has had diabetes for many years. For a small town like Medfield, I always though something was wrong, when each year there were more and more kids visiting the school nurses office for lunch time blood testing.

  • Athena

    My child was diagnosed at the age of 6, and I also feel something is wrong considering when we moved to Leicester MA, my son as well as 6 others (if not more now) have been diagnosed at approx. the same age, same schools. Leicester MA should be on the outbreak list as well. I know the other mothers would agree as well. (Majority, does not run in the families, and not mine). Love this article and would love to get in touch with anyone in this article.

  • Lisa

    My daughter is 1 of 10 kids (we know of) that have juvenile diabetes living in Acton. She was diagnosed almost 2 years ago, just after her 5th birthday. I too would like to get in touch with someone in this article.

  • Athena

    The diabetics with type 1 is much more than 6 children, and it's a small town….could the arsenic in our well water be the cause? Our town is loaded with children getting diagnosed around the same age and area.

  • Laura

    This article is very interesting ~ as the mother of the child diagnosised at age 3 on the South Shore ~ I would love to talk to any researcher about this ~ my child's school had had type I's before but my child was the 1st one in the school at the same time and since then 4 others in our district have been diagnosised. Our small town has 4 elementary schools and the numbers are on the rise ~ any help our family can be – bring it on!!!

  • Sue

    Look to the increased vaccination schedule for our children. Read Dr. Classen's work … Look to the Prevnar vaccination. Vaccinations trigger type 1 diabetes in children!

  • Lisa

    I live in Methuen, MA. When my daughter was diagnosed 4 years ago, another boy in her school was diagnosed a day or two before her. When she went back to school she was one of 8 or 9 kids, over the years those older kids have moved on, for a while she was the only one, now she is 1 of I think 7 kids at the same school!!!! This is not a coincidence. Some kids move into the district with the diagnosis, but always in the late winter early spring months you will hear of one or two more children diagnosed with the same thing! Presently, I am going to try and find out in Methuen what is going on!

  • Lisa

    My daughter had that vaccination….it was about a year before she came down with diabetes. The doctors offered this new vaccine that helped to prevent the colds that cause ear infections and I took advantage of it….now I read up on Prenvar and what Dr. Classen says….OMG!!!!! I will call my pediatrician tomorrow to make sure I am certain of what I am talking about and I will post here.

  • Lisa

    It was Prevnar, August 03. Diagnosis of Type 1 Diabetes March, 05!

  • Jill

    My 11 yr old was just diagnosed in May of this year. Two weeks after her best friend! There are many children in our small town Scituate. What is going on?

  • Lisa

    Contact me if you want to talk. I've been where you are….

  • Anonymous

    my daughter diagnosed age 23 coxsackie virus as child. no symptoms, fitness, however, blood test showed she has antibodies and runs high in morning 130. Comes down after eats in a.m. Dr. says because she has antibody she is type 1. Believe because she always exercised and ate healthy is why she wasn't symptomatic and kept under control. We are still very confused at what caused this and still is not symptomatic with thirst, urination, hunger, etc. On insulin only at bedtime, 5 units a1c 6.2 over past year. ? is she really diabetic. Lately eating certain foods increasing blood sugar at times 180 during day. Would like another opinion.

  • Pam

    My daughter was DX at age 6, 21 years ago. She was normal weight until age 4 when something triggered extreme weight gains while consuming less than 1000 calories a day. Then came the DX of Type I diabetes. Children for the past 30 years have been given routine dosages of antiobiotics for ear infections. My daughter took ampicillin almost every 6 weeks for ear infections. At age 6, she was given the pill form of penicillin. She broke out and within a month was in the hospital with diabetes. I will always believe these high dosages of antibiotics are the trigger for weight gain and diabetes in children.

  • Rose

    Question to all of you, as this story ran again the other night on tv, are any of your chldren who were diagnosed conceived by fertility methods? Just brainstorming to get to the bottom of this.

  • Pat

    Our 6th grade here in Marlborough, CT has 4 type 1′s out of 88 total (my son and another on our street diagnosed about 6-7 months apart). Stories of kids in our town getting a bug after swimming in the town lake and getting diabetes a few years later.

    • Steve

      I had 2 of 3 children diagnosed on South Shore both within months of each other. But they are 6 years difference in age. Something is going on and I don’t feel the right questions are being asked to get the answers.