Another compelling reason for pregnant women to get their flu shots came out of a Danish study that was released online Monday.
The six-year study indicates children whose mothers had the flu or a fever lasting more than a week during pregnancy may have a higher risk of developing autism, according to a report on the American Academy of Pediatrics website, www.aap.org.
"We've always known that pregnant women who develop a high fever or the flu may have complications, which is why we do recommend the flu vaccine for all mothers," said Kathleen Meckstroth, Washington County health commissioner and executive director of the Washington County Health Department.
She said the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend a shot containing the inactive flu virus for pregnant women rather than the nasal spray that contains the live virus.
"There's no reason for pregnant women not to get a flu shot," Meckstroth said.
Vickie Kelly, director of nursing at the Marietta Health Department, agreed, noting studies resulting from the H1N1 flu season in 2009 showed pregnant women who caught the flu were at the highest risk of developing complications related to pregnancy.
To learn more:
Information on the Danish study relating to flu and autism can be found on the American Academy of Pediatrics website at www.aap.org
Information about autism and support services may be obtained through the Autism Support Center of Southeast Ohio at 373-3781, Ext. 54, or www.seovec.org
"The CDC now encourages everyone to get a flu shot every season," she said. "And pregnant moms who have school-age children may be especially at risk of catching the flu."
That's because children often carry the virus home after coming in contact with other children at school who may have the flu.
The Danish study, "Autism After Infection, Febrile Episodes, and Antibiotic Use During Pregnancy: An Exploratory Study," will be published in the December 2012 American Academy of Pediatrics.
The study involved a total 96,736 children who were born in Denmark between 1997 and 2003, according to the AAP report. Their mothers were questioned about fevers, infections and use of antibiotics during pregnancy.
The report said children whose mothers reported influenza during pregnancy had double the risk of being diagnosed with infantile autism over those whose mothers reported common respiratory or other infections during their pregnancies.
The Danish study also indicated children whose mothers had a fever lasting more than a week during pregnancy had three times the risk of developing infantile autism.
But U.S. officials emphasize the study does not specify that influenza is a specific cause of autism.
Ginger O'Connor, director of early childhood and therapy for the Washington County Board of Developmental Disabilities and a recognized expert in autism, has concerns that the Danish study will only scare young and pregnant moms.
"Along with these studies comes some progress when searching for an answer for the disease, but along with that progress comes more questions," she said. "And this study raises questions, but also it seems it would raise fears in young moms and those who are pregnant."
O'Connor said it's incumbent on everyone to be prudent about their health and to take precautions against the flu and other illnesses.
"But this study needs to be duplicated and replicated before any real conclusions can be reached," she said. "We know autism is very complex and it's not clear what causes autism. Also there are many different degrees of the disease. My guess is we're still going to come down to a genetic predisposition and environmental hits that combine to create what we call autism."
Those environmental hits may include a maternal illness during pregnancy, O'Connor said, but that would only be a piece of a much larger puzzle.
"The message that should continue is to obtain early identification of autism as the best avenue to follow," she said. "Then we can start putting the supports in place that a child will need to deal with autism."
O'Connor added the hope that families dealing with autism do not take on guilt after hearing about the Danish study results.
"No one should think if they'd just stayed away from someone who had the flu they could have prevented their child from having autism," she said.
Sharon Blevins of Parkersburg is in the 37th week of her first pregnancy and has had her flu vaccination. She knows pregnant women who get the flu are at risk for complications.
"I would say it's very important to be vaccinated, especially for people like me who work in the medical profession," she said. "And the hospital (Camden Clark Memorial) where I work offers flu shots for all employees every year."
Marietta resident Melissa Sarris, now seven months into her pregnancy, said whether the flu causes autism or not, it just makes sense to be vaccinated.
"This is my first child, and I've heard a lot about the importance of getting a flu shot," she said. "So I had my shot two weeks ago."
Sarris said her whole family-parents, grandparents, anyone who will be around the new baby-has also received a flu shot.
"My immediate concern is for the safety of the baby," she said. "And especially being a first-time parent you want everything to be OK so you can have a healthy baby. Instead of worrying about that you can do something about it."