Vaccination and Autism: The Case for the Flu Vaccine


As fall shifts into winter and temperatures continue to drop, we all anticipate the return of falling snow, cozy sweaters, steaming hot chocolate, and the flu. Yes, the flu, unfortunately, rears its ugly head amongst the charming trademarks of the changing seasons. Caused by the influenza virus, the flu can ruin the holidays by producing a variety of uncomfortable symptoms including cough, fever, body aches, and a sore throat. Since millions of Americans are infected each year, the flu has become one of the most commonly vaccinated illnesses; a new vaccine is produced annually to fight the most prevalent strains of the virus.

While the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends everyone six months and older receive a flu vaccine, there have been questions regarding the risks it may pose to pregnant women and their unborn children. As flu season kicks into high gear, a new  study published by JAMA Pediatrics aims to “investigate the association between influenza infection and vaccination during pregnancy and [Autism Spectrum Disorder] risk.

The study examined the health records of children born at Kaiser Permanente facilities in Northern California between 2000 and 2010. Of the more than 196,000 records reviewed, 3,101 children (1.6%) had been diagnosed with autism through June 2015. Among the mothers of the 3,101 children, only 1% had the flu while pregnant, and approximately 23% had received a flu vaccination during their pregnancy (Shute).

The study did not find a correlation between having the flu while pregnant and an increased risk for autism in children. While the study did find a slightly increased risk of autism in the case of mothers who had a flu shot during their first trimester of pregnancy, the number is negligible (Seaman, 2016). In fact, the researchers believe the finding could be due to chance, given the small number of children in that group.

Lisa Croen, senior author of the study and a senior research scientist for Kaiser Permanente, hopes the study will provide reassurance to prospective mothers with lingering doubts about whether the flu or flu vaccine increases the chance for autism. “The way we feel people should interpret this is that there is really not any increased risk for autism,” Croen said upon the study’s release, adding, “and we’re recommending no changes in the vaccine policy” (Shute).

Despite this, Croen also acknowledges that there should be further research regarding the potential link between flu vaccinations and the risk for autism, with a focus on maternal immune responses during pregnancy.

The CDC recommends the annual influenza vaccine as the best line of defense against the illness, and currently recommends that pregnant women receive a vaccination. Contracting the flu while pregnant can pose several risks, including premature birth and low birth weight for the baby. A flu vaccination would not only significantly reduce a mother’s risk of contracting the flu, but it would also protect a newborn during the first few months of life.

The discussion of vaccinations and potential links to autism has become increasingly controversial in recent years. The Humanology Project recently explored the myth linking the MMR vaccine and autism, with the general consensus that vaccines do not cause, or increase the risk of, autism. Much of that sentiment applies to the discussion of the influenza vaccine and autism as well, as the CDC and obstetric and pediatric medical societies ardently maintain that it is completely safe for expecting mothers to receive the vaccine.

The vast majority of medical research is clear: vaccinations are essential to keeping our society healthy, and the benefits of vaccines greatly outweigh the potential risks associated with them. Since pregnancy causes changes in the immune system, heart, and lungs that leave expecting mothers at greater risk for infections and illness, it is imperative they talk to their doctor about the importance of the influenza vaccine.

References:

Seaman, A. (2016, November 28). Flu – or flu vaccine – in pregnancy not tied to autism in kids. Retrieved November 29, 2016, from http://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-flu-pregnancy-autism-    idUSKBN13N2E0?utm_source=34553&utm_medium=partner

Shute, N. (2016, November 28). Flu Vaccine During Pregnancy Not Linked To Autism. Retrieved November 29, 2016, from http://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2016/11/28/503592933/

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