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Exploring the link between autism and illness in pregnant mothers

November 28, 2012

Could autism in a child be related to fever or infection in the pregnant mother?

A new study that will be published in the December issue of the journal Pediatrics explores a potential link between maternal infection during pregnancy and a child’s likelihood of developing autism.

In an analysis of 96,736 Danish children, researchers found no increased risk of autism for children whose mothers experienced common infections during pregnancy, such as urinary tract or respiratory infections. However, mothers who developed the flu or sustained a fever for more than seven days during pregnancy were more likely to have children who developed autism.

While this study offers an interesting take on an incredibly complex disorder, it’s important to know that it doesn’t prove an association between fever or flu and autism. The authors acknowledge that this is an exploratory study that offers potential clues- not definitive answers- about the development of autism, which should then be studied more fully.  

The study

Researchers recruited pregnant women from Denmark from 1997 to 2003. The mothers were asked more than 200 questions regarding their pregnancy and early post-partum experiences. These interviews took place during the 17th week of pregnancy, the 32nd week of pregnancy, and 6 months after the child was born. When the children were between 8 and 14 years of age, the researchers then analyzed which children had been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders. Of the 96,736 children analyzed, 976 were later diagnosed with autism.

What they found

The study found no association between mothers who reported common illnesses such as cough, cold, urinary tract or sinus infections and the development of autism in their children. Whether the women developed illness in the first, second or third trimester of pregnancy also did not show any association with an autism diagnosis.

However, women who developed the flu during pregnancy or sustained a fever for more than seven days during pregnancy were more likely than other women to have a child who was later diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. There was also a slight association with a mother’s use of antibiotics in pregnancy.

What does it mean?

First, let’s talk about what it doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean that we’ve figured out what causes autism. It doesn’t mean that if you’re pregnant and develop the flu or fever that your child will go on to develop an autism spectrum disorder.

It’s important to keep in mind that this is a preliminary study that needs to be confirmed through further research in order to offer clear and conclusive recommendations. This is the equivalent of putting together the first couple of pieces in a puzzle; we can’t see the picture clearly until there are many pieces that fit together, and we’re just not there yet.

It’s also good to remember that flu shots for pregnant women are incredibly important. We know that women who develop the flu while pregnant have much more severe consequences than non-pregnant women. Getting a flu shot while pregnant not only protects the mother, but also offers protection to the baby for up to six months of life.

So, is this study on to something? We just don’t know yet; we’ll have to wait and see.