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Flu during pregnancy linked to autism in children

In the last ten years, rates of children born with autism have started to increase, creeping from roughly 1 in 150 kids in 2000, to 1 in 88 in 2008. In Utah, that number is much higher — roughly 1 in 47. Scientists and doctors aren't entirely sure why these numbers continue to rise.

A massive study of almost 97,000 children from Denmark may have a few answers. Researchers from both Denmark and California think the flu that plagues folks every winter may have something to do with it.

During the study, which followed roughly 30 percent of the child-bearing women in Denmark from 1997 to 2003, researchers found that women who had the flu during pregnancy were about twice as likely to have children with autism as those who did not have the flu.

For those who were especially sick, the risk was even greater: A flu or fever that lasted for a week led to a tripled risk of having a child with autism.

"We know that genes are important," Dr. William McMahon with University of Utah Health Care told KSL. "We think that environmental triggers are important. This study is a nice hint."

Inflammation due to the mother's immune response is implicated in the results.

Growing evidence suggests inflammatory processes may be interfering with brain development at critical stages, leading to changes in behaviors such as those associated with autism, as well as cognitive deficits," Dr. Irva Hertz-Picciotto of Stanford University's told NBC News.

This connection has been proposed for some time. Studies among animals have shown that the mother's immune response causes changes in the brain of offspring. But vaccines don't cause the same immune responses as a full-blown infection or a long-term sickness.

"We want to reassure women. In this study, most women who experienced flu or prolonged fever or who were taking antibiotics did not have children with an autism spectrum disorder," Dr. Coleen Boyle told NBC News.

We shouldn't fear too much, however — 99 percent of women who had the flu did not give birth to children with autism. Researchers also stressed that the results are not set in stone. Flu could easily have been over-reported or misreported. The study is exploratory and does not necessarily have implications for treatment or diagnosis yet.

"If you look at the numbers, it's barely significant in a rigorous statistical way of testing," McMahon said.

Nevertheless, pregnant mothers are encouraged to get flu shots for this and many other reasons.

"All of us should have flu shots. Women contemplating getting pregnant or even pregnant women, unless they have some other illness that precludes it, should have a flu shot," McMahon said.

What are your thoughts? Do you think they are grasping at straws? It seems like everytime we turn around something new is blamed.


Asked by LostSoul88 at 4:46 PM on Nov. 13, 2012 in Parenting Debate

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This question is closed.
Answers (8)
  • Oh Lord. Just another way to try to push another vaccine on unwanting people.

    Answer by idareyou at 8:56 PM on Nov. 13, 2012

  • Well that doesn't apply to me. I didn't have the flu

    Sounds like grasping to me

    Answer by butterflyblue19 at 4:51 PM on Nov. 13, 2012

  • Well, I had the flu when I was about 5 or 6 wks pregnant with my youngest who us now 13 months. He is a very busy child, very social, very energetic. That was the first time I'd had the flu in probably 20 years. I don't think I'd even been to my first OB appointment yet. I'd had a positive prego test and just knew cause I already had 4 kids. A greater risk of Autism is scary but I have to think it is unlikely, at least I hope.

    Answer by HHx5 at 10:57 PM on Nov. 13, 2012

  • There's no way to know without follow up studies, but "twice as likely". Seems very significant and shouldn't be dismissed. If it is partly caused by an inflammatory process than it might be that there are additional causes besides the flu, such as autoimmune disorders, or stress.

    Answer by RyansMom001 at 7:09 AM on Nov. 15, 2012

  • It is interesting given most top reasearchers are quite certain that children who have autism do have at least one parent with an autoimmune disorder. I attended a medical education class with two doctors who specialize in autism from Harvard and John Hopkins. many times the parents are not aware they have this autoimmune disorder. As a result of these autoimmune disorders you are more likely to get sick (thus the flu) and then more likely to have higher rates of children diagnosed with autism. Yet not everyone, by far, who gets the flu also has an autoimmune disorder. It does actually get us closer to finding out the WHY question. Most parents of children living with autism do not undergo very thorough genetic testing by top genectisits. They simply are hard to find across the country. But Harvard and John Hopkins have the available researchers. And they found some interesting things. Not enough to say WHY

    Answer by frogdawg at 8:19 AM on Nov. 15, 2012

  • but enough to go Hmmmmm that is something to keep looking at. I help parents focus on not the WHY but the approaches to use that we know now. Why will help because we can then get more exact with treatment and therapeutic interventions. But for now we just do not have it. What the doctors did say: it was WAY over diagnosed. That there is no cure (right now). We need to have children screened earlier and intervention sooner with occupational, physical, speech therapists and psychotherapists who do CBT. There were a lot of other gems I picked up but that had more to do with actual medication approaches and specifics in how to differentiate between autism and other autism like disorders.

    Answer by frogdawg at 8:26 AM on Nov. 15, 2012

  • I think it is very interesting. I believe that it also has to do with chemicals in food and in the environment.

    Answer by booklover545 at 9:20 PM on Nov. 17, 2012

  • I never had the flu while pregnant and didn't take any flu shots while pregnant yet I have 2 boys with autism.


    Answer by sweetangie79 at 7:22 AM on Nov. 21, 2012