Ever since the controversy regarding autism and a possible (and now negated) link to childhood immunization (US Federal Court Denies Autism/Vaccine Claim), there has been a search for another culprit. Rates of autism and autism-spectrum disorders are rising in North America and we have yet to figure out why.
There are many theories floating around, including one that says the rise may have something to do with the fact that we are now getting better at identifying the disorders. But we still don't know for sure.
Lately, the number of ultrasounds that women have while pregnant has been a target of autism research. Ultrasounds, while they can be a necessary medical test, are often done just to see how far along a pregnancy is and, to be honest, are sometimes done for vanity. "Ultrasounds have become such a normal part of routine obstetric care that pregnant moms don't question whether they are really necessary," says Jennifer Margulis, PhD, author of The Business of Baby: What Doctors Don't Tell You, What Corporations Try to Sell You, and How to Put Your Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Baby Before Their Bottom Line. "Plus it's fun to post ultrasound photos to Facebook and send them to family members. Ultrasound parties have become popular. It's definitely a fad."
(Full disclosure: I did have two ultrasounds for each of my three pregnancies in the late 80s and early 90s. My third child's second ultrasound detected a potential problem: hydronephrosis of the left kidney. This caused me considerable worry and my son turned out to be perfectly normal when he was born.)
First, what exactly is an ultrasound test? According to the NIH:
"Ultrasound uses high-frequency sound waves to look at organs and structures inside the body. Health care professionals use them to view the heart, blood vessels, kidneys, liver and other organs. During pregnancy, doctors use ultrasound tests to examine the fetus. Unlike x-rays, ultrasound does not involve exposure to radiation."
The fact that ultrasounds don't involve radiation may be what lulled many people into a false sense of security, but do we really know what those high-frequency sound waves can do to a developing fetus? At this point, we have no proof either way, but in this day and age of increasingly unnecessary interventions, is it worth the risk? In the Daily Beast article, Are Ultrasounds Causing Autism in Unborn Babies, Margulis discusses several studies that show the frequent prenatal ultrasounds are not helping reduce fetal mortality or outcomes, which is what the original goal was.
So, when should prenatal ultrasounds be done, I asked Margulis. She responded: "In the perfect world there would be no ultrasound screening of any kind before the end of the first trimester and ultrasound would not be routinely used in low-risk pregnancies. Unless a woman is certain she would have an abortion, she does not need any ultrasounds at all.
"Doing ultrasound scans at every appointment because a woman is "high-risk" is of no proven benefit either. If a doctor finds some other problems during prenatal exams, then ultrasound--at the lowest possible settings and for the least amount of time necessary--may be helpful. These are the actual recommendations of the medical associations! But doctors are no longer following them."
So, what do you think?