Bad Science Behind Reported Link Between Herpes and Autism


Mar 10, 2017


A recent study has been making the media rounds with headlines touting a link between genital herpes and autism — more specifically, a mother’s herpes flare-up during pregnancy and a child’s autism.

There are a lot of problems with this ‘link’ between herpes and autism, both in the underlying assumptions of the study, and in the way the results are being reported.

The study purports to find a link between the inflammation that occurs during a herpes outbreak (due to heightened immune system activity) during pregnancy and autism – not the mere presence of the virus in the body.

However, the authors of the study only found this link when examining women who have a herpes infection, not any other infection that would cause inflammation. This is tenuous at best – if the researchers’ theory that mothers’ heightened immune activity affects fetal brain development in a way that causes autism spectrum disorder is true, then it should be true for immune activity in response to any infection, not just herpes. The study, which examined four other viruses in addition to herpes, didn’t find a correlation between mothers’ immune activity and autism for any of the other four viral infections, only for autism and herpes.

The study found this correlation between mothers’ herpes infections and immune response and children’s autism only for male babies. However, the medical community (and the study’s authors) haven’t identified anything different about male babies that would make them more susceptible to the mother’s immune responses.

The study has provoked criticism within the scientific community, with experts saying independent replication of findings (a foundational principle of proof in medical experiments) is unlikely, and worrying the study could cause undue concern for pregnant women who also carry the herpes virus. From a CNN report that interviewed independent experts, including Amalia S. Margaret, a research professor in the department of laboratory medicine at University of Washington, who:

… noted that the researchers first ran one set of tests to look at whether a maternal infection (measured by a blood test) was associated with autism and found “no association for any of the five viruses.” Next, the team ran another set of tests examining antibodies at mid-pregnancy and after birth and here found an association between genital herpes and autism at mid-pregnancy only. Finally, the team ran a final set of tests and discovered that only the highest threshold of genital herpes antibodies in the mother could be linked to “a statistically significant” increase in the rate of autism.

“The more ways you look at data, the more chances you have to find something that is unlikely to be reproduced,” Magaret said.

But perhaps the biggest cause for concern is that the study (flimsy at best) is the latest in the West’s near-hysteria around the cause – and, tacitly, the cure – of autism. From the specious claim that vaccines cause autism (debunked again and again) to the use of the word ‘epidemic’ to describe autism rates (increasing only due to broadened clinical definitions and improved diagnostic tools), the value that individuals who fall on the autism spectrum can contribute to society is lost – and consequently, so is the case for providing them and their families with the therapy and support many require.

This is not to say the cause of autism is not worth probing; it is a valid quest — if driven by the pursuit of knowledge and understanding, rather than cure. As Steven Silberman, author of NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity put it in an interview with WIRED:

One way to understand it is to think of human operating systems. Just because a computer is not running Windows does not mean it’s broken. It’s doing things in different ways. Autistic people are bad at reading social signals but good at detecting flaws in visual patterns. They have a hard time coping with surprise, but they’re good at pursuing a personal interest with great focus and intensity. So instead of diseases and cures and causations, we should think of autism as a different way of being that deserves respect and accommodation in society.

Autism prevalence is difficult to pin down. At the moment, US estimates suggest 1 in 68 children are autistic; UK estimates 1 in 100. Regardless, people with autism are likely to constitute one of the largest minority groups in the world as awareness and diagnosis spread. Which means ‘normal’ may merely be a Potemkin address, and the capacity of autistic minds might be more worth probing than the cause.


Written By Liesl Goecker

Liesl Goecker is The Swaddle’s managing editor.


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