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Can the Flu During Pregnancy Lead to Autism?

Katlyn Joy | 2, January 2013


A new study out of Denmark has made a compelling link between the flu or fevers and the onset of autism spectrum disorders. The study which was headed by researchers from the University of Aarhus in Denmark along with Diana Shendel of the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention looked at 97,000 mothers of children born between 1997 and 2003.

Mothers were interviewed twice during pregnancy and again when their babies were 6 months of age in regards to illnesses while pregnant and what if any medications were taken to combat the illnesses.

Mothers who had contracted the flu while pregnant or had experienced a fever lasting a week or more had an increased risk of their offspring developing autism by age 3. The flu was linked to a twofold increase while those with fevers longer than a week had a threefold increase of risk.

Those with urinary tract infections, colds, respiratory or sinus infections did not see any increase of risk, which is good news since pregnant women are much more likely to be infected with such illnesses. Likewise those with herpes did not see an increase of risk.

Women who took certain antibiotics had a higher risk but more research must be done to tease out the meaning of that statistic as it may be that women who took certain stronger antibiotics may incur more risk simply because they were sicker not because of the particular medication.,

The fact that the mothers were interviewed during and soon after pregnancy eliminated the risk of mothers having a faulty recollection of illness once their child had been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder as a means of trying to find a cause.

While medical professionals are taking notice of the study and see it as another piece of the puzzle, most are warning pregnant women not to worry unnecessarily about their own risks. The fact is that of the women in the study who reported having the flu or a fever lasting a week or more, only 1 percent had a child who was later diagnosed with autism.

Also, previous research has been at odds whether illness in pregnant moms could lead to autism. A study from Sweden earlier this year found no such connection but another one done in the US in May and published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders saw a link between fevers in pregnancy and either autism or developmental disorders showing up later in offspring.

Researchers are unsure whether it is specifically something in the influenza virus that may be the cause or if inflammatory processes that occur with an illness can affect fetal brain development.

The Danish study also found a small increase of risk with mothers who took antibiotics while pregnant. However, doctors do warn pregnant women not to take the findings out of context and to take any medications that are required to fight off infections.

Pregnant women with fevers can and should take Tylenol or acetaminophen as fevers are known to cause other problems such as birth defects. Additionally the best advice for pregnant moms is to get a flu vaccine. Flu shots will not only protect mother and child during pregnancy but will also protect the baby in the first six months of life.

Most experts shun the idea that illness alone could cause autism as genetics is believed to play a role as well, as found in twin and sibling studies. If one twin has ASD or autism spectrum disorder, the other twin will have the disorder about 36 to 95 percent of the time if identical twins. In fraternal twins the rate is from 0 to about one-third the time.

Parents with one child with autism or ASD have a 2 to 18 percent risk of having another child with it.

Children with ASD are more often affected with other genetic or chromosomal conditions but 62 percent have average or higher intelligence.

According to the CDC, about 1 in 88 children are diagnosed with autism or autism spectrum disorders. The disorder is more common in boys than girls, with a five times higher rate among males.

A new study by the CDC is now starting which is looking into the causes of autism. So far about 2,700 children are enrolled in the study.

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