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Flu During Pregnancy Linked to Autism, Survey Says

Comstock/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- Mothers who reported having the flu during pregnancy were at least twice as likely to have a child with autism as those who did not report having the flu, according to new survey results from a Danish study.

While the study does not suggest that high fever -- or flu -- causes autism, many experts said the correlation reinforces recommendations that all pregnant women should get the flu shot.

The study by researchers in Denmark and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention looked at nearly 97,000 children ages 8 to 14 who were born in Denmark between 1997 and 2003, only 1 percent of whom were diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder.  The researchers interviewed the mothers during their pregnancy and after delivery about any infections and high fevers they'd experienced while pregnant, as well as whether they had used antibiotics.

Although the study was not designed to ask about cases of the flu, mothers who reported having the flu during their pregnancy were two times more likely to have a child with autism, according to the study published Monday in the journal Pediatrics.  Those whose fever persisted for a week or more before their third trimester were three times more likely to have a child on the autism spectrum, the study found.

While the flu shot may prevent many cases of influenza, the findings did not suggest that getting the flu shot would have prevented the development of autism.

"While it is very important to get an influenza shot during pregnancy, women who get the flu this winter should not worry that they have put their child at an increased risk of developing autism," said Dr. Richard Besser, ABC News' chief health and medical editor.

The interview with the mothers included more than 200 questions that sought information about many different types of infections during pregnancy.

"We consider this study to be exploratory," said Dr. Colleen Boyle, director of the National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities.  Boyle was not involved in the study.

The study also found that some mothers who reported taking one type of antibiotics called macrolides, more commonly known by names like azithromycin or erythromycin, had only a slight increase in risk.

Studies in animals have shown that the baby's brain is affected when a female's immune response is triggered during pregnancy, such as fighting an infection.  These initial findings suggest a mother's immune system may play some role in a baby's development, though not nearly as strong as the association found in animal studies, according to some experts.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio

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