Flu During Pregnancy May Be Harmful

By Amanda Shelton | UTS Staff Writer | SQ Online (2013-14)

Following an optimal diet during pregnancy and taking prenatal vitamins religiously may not be enough to stave off lifelong debilitating conditions in offspring.

Past studies have identified that unborn babies of mothers who contract influenza during their pregnancy have higher risks of physiological abnormalities and adulthood schizophrenia. A recent study published in May 2013 in the Journal of the American Medical Association: Psychiatry suggests that influenza during pregnancy is also connected to a higher rate of bipolar disorder in the offspring in utero at the time of flu. “In utero” is a term used to identify that the unborn children are still in the uterus of their mother.

Physiological issues including cleft palate, cleft lip, neural-tube defects, cardiovascular defects, and three specific congenital abnormalities in human babies were correlated with maternal influenza specifically around the second to third month of gestation. It was also discovered that the use of anti-fever drugs along with folic acid supplementation may help prevent the physiological abnormalities associated with high fever from influenza but this study was not extended to psychological issues such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

The research discovered that babies born to mothers who had influenza during pregnancy had a 3-4% increased risk of having bipolarity shortly after birth. It was discovered that the chance of babies being diagnosed with bipolar disorder as adults was quadrupled if their mothers caught the flu while they were in utero. It was also confirmed that avoiding maternal influenza could lessen the risk of bipolar disorder in offspring. Both bipolar disorder and schizophrenia are diagnoses that last a lifetime and can have debilitating effects.These studies demonstrate why pregnant women in the United States receive priority when it comes to flu shots, especially if there are shortages.

There are, of course, additional biological and environmental factors to consider and it is important to realize that without a genetic component it is very unlikely that maternal influenza will cause spontaneous schizophrenia or bipolar disorder to appear in offspring. These studies demonstrate a possible environmental trigger acting upon biological components and causing a higher likelihood of abnormalities to show up in offspring.

To learn more, UC San Diego offers courses that talk about human development while in utero and the role of epigenetics. These courses include BICD 100: Genetics; BICD 130: Embryos, Genes, and Development; BICD 134: Human Reproduction and Development; and BILD 24: Biology of Human Reproduction.


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  2. Limosin, F., Rouillon, F., Payan, C., Cohen, J.-M. and Strub, N. (2003), Prenatal exposure to influenza as a risk factor for adult schizophrenia. Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, 107: 331—335. doi: 10.1034/j.1600-0447.2003.00052.x
  3. Parboosing R, Bao Y, Shen L, Schaefer CA, Brown AS. Gestational Influenza and Bipolar Disorder in Adult Offspring. JAMA Psychiatry. 2013;70(7):677-685. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2013.896.