STUDY: Connection between infection during pregnancy and autism or depression for baby

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A recent study concluded that children exposed to an infection, like the flu or pneumonia, in the womb had a heightened risk of being diagnosed with autism or depression. 

The study was recently published in JAMA Psychiatry and involved 1,791,520 children born between January 1, 1973, and December 31, 2014, in Sweden. The study’s findings include a 79 percent increased risk of being diagnosed with autism and a 24 percent increased risk of being diagnosed with depression for children born to mothers who had an infection while pregnant. The study also found an increased risk of suicide.

The authors of the study wrote the following in the conclusions and relevance section: “These findings suggest that fetal exposure to a maternal infection while hospitalized increased the risk for autism and depression, but not bipolar or psychosis, during the child’s life. These results emphasize the importance of avoiding infections during pregnancy, which may impart subtle fetal brain injuries contributing to the development of autism and depression.”

Dr. Amy Bentley Illescas at Total Care 280 in Birmingham told CBS 42 that studies like this one reinforce the importance of preventative health measures, like getting the flu shot.

“The flu can really have some serious consequences and, when you’re pregnant, you’re more vulnerable,” Illescas said. “So I don’t like shots as much as anyone else does, and even though it’s not 100 percent perfect, it’s still the best we have.”​​​​​​

Dr. Michele Kong has a child with autism and founded KultureCity to raise awareness and provide more accessibility for people with autism. She told CBS 42 she had a range of emotions when she first read the study, but her biggest takeaway was how little is yet known about the effects of our environment on a growing baby’s brain development. 

“Regardless of the diagnoses — that in some ways to me, I feel like is secondary — the primary thing is that this is your child in front of you,” Kong said. “It’s really a matter of figuring out what his or her strength is and how do you meet that need that is in front of you and how best to capitalize on their potential.”

Dr. Illescas said people who are pregnant need to be good advocates for their own health and make sure they are seeing a doctor who will answer all of their questions or concerns. She also said they should be aware of another recent study involving a possible connection between long-term acetaminophen use (commonly found in the pain-reliever Tylenol) and an ADD or ADHD diagnosis. 

The following is the authors’ conclusion in that study: “Short-term maternal use of acetaminophen during pregnancy was negatively associated with ADHD in offspring. Long-term maternal use of acetaminophen during pregnancy was substantially associated with ADHD even after adjusting for indications of use, familial risk of ADHD, and other potential confounders.”

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