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Kristina Duda, R.N.

Does the Flu Cause Autism?

By November 14, 2012

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You may have seen reports about a study that was published in the journal Pediatrics that looks at a possible link between autism and maternal flu infection during pregnancy. The study has gotten a lot of press and has many people concerned. However, it's important to look at the facts.

The study looked at nearly 100,000 children in Denmark who were born between 1997 and 2003. Results were based on surveys and interviews with mothers during and after their pregnancies and information about the autism spectrum diagnoses came from a Danish database. One percent of the children included in the study were diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Researchers were looking to see if there was any correlation between children diagnosed with ASD and illness during the mother's pregnancy. Many illnesses were considered, not just the flu.

According to the results, the most significant finding was an increased occurrence (twofold) of infantile autism - a specific type of autism that is diagnosed before the age of 3 - in children whose mother's reported an influenza infection during pregnancy. The risk was tripled when the mother reported having a fever that lasted for more than a week during pregnancy. A slight increase in infantile autism and ASD  were also noted when antibiotics were used during pregnancy.

Researchers cautioned that the results should not be seen as a correlation between influenza infection or febrile illness during pregnancy and autism. There are any number of reasons the results could have appeared this way, including limitations in the way the questions were asked, incorrect self diagnosis of influenza by the mothers and even coincidence.

What we should take away from this study is that the findings warrant more research to see if a true connection can be found. Previous studies have shown conflicting results and because this was an exploratory study looking for many different possible correlations, more focused and specific studies should be conducted before a conclusion is drawn. If you have concerns about the flu, the flu vaccine or autism, talk to your health care provider.

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