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Flu Linked to Autism? Treading Pregnancy Studies with Caution

Posted by Lara Salahi  November 12, 2012 10:00 AM

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New survey results from a Danish study published Monday in the journal Pediatrics found that 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.

It’s flu season, and at first glance, the finding can sound terrifying. Fortunately, when the result of the study is put into context, it isn’t.

While the study does not suggest that having a high fever or getting the flu causes autism, headlines that read similar to “Flu During Pregnancy Linked to Autism” can concern many pregnant women.

Unfortunately the headlines are not the first to oversimplify a study’s findings and what it means for women. Here’s another recent headline that also initially sounds alarming: High Blood Pressure during Pregnancy May Lead to Low Offspring IQ.

Even though it shouldn’t, one-liners like these can bring stress, worry and anxiety – three pregnancy faux pas!

Pregnancy is a time when a woman either feels totally in control of her body (i.e. eating healthy, attending all scheduled appointments) or not in control at all (i.e. genetic history). It’s a jolting ride and as much as we try to control our emotions, the unpredictable waves of hormone changes don’t help the cause. One of the worst possible feelings a woman can have before, during, or after pregnancy is feeling she did not do everything controllable during her pregnancy to protect her child. Misinterpreting news stories like the one above can be dangerous -- especially if there’s any suggestion that a child’s autism is in any way the mother’s fault because she had the flu.

Here are a few red flags you should look out for when reading about this and future pregnancy-related studies:

Beware of surveys. Studies that rely on survey results have two major weaknesses. They rely on the survey taker’s response to be accurate, and in many cases are not proven by medical records. Also, because survey takers may be asked to recall something that happened in the past, their memory may not be as clear.

In this study, the survey takers had to respond to more than 200 questions, mostly about infections they had during their pregnancy. While some of the questions asked about high fever, none of the questions addressed the flu specifically. Some women mentioned having had the flu, but their reported condition could not be backed up by a formal medical diagnosis.

Association does not mean causation. Just because study results suggest that there may be a link between two conditions does not mean that one causes the other.

According to the researchers, the study was not designed to look at the flu, but some of the survey takers brought it up. For that reason, the link between the flu and autism may have been by chance.

Even with this information, studies like this may still be worth reading. They let us know what kinds of pregnancy-related topics researchers are studying. Here are just a couple of messages we should get out of this particular study:

A mother’s immune system may affect her baby’s brain development. This is something researchers have known for a while now, but it’s unclear how exactly, and which babies may be more vulnerable to deficits in brain development. A majority of the research so far has been done in animals. This current study is one of a few currently looking into whether the conclusions in animal studies can be translated to humans. So far, there’s no definitive answer.

Get the flu shot. Certainly this study does not suggest that getting the flu shot prevents autism. However, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that all pregnant women get the flu shot at any stage of their pregnancy. There are some things in our pregnancy that we can’t control, and there are some things that we can – a good philosophy is to do the things we can. Getting the flu shot is one way to protect your immune system and prevent some strains of the flu.

There are many pregnancy stressors. But from now on, drawing scary conclusions from studies without acknowledging the simple red flags should not be one of them.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Lara Salahi is an award-winning multimedia journalist whose specialty is reporting health and medical stories. She has worked in local, network, and cable television, international print, and documentary film. She More »

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