Fears About Swine Flu: Don't Forget The Part Where You Might Go Insane

Just to the throw one more log of fear on the fire...

As if a case of influenza wasn't bad enough on its own, some strains carry the risk of a lingering and sometimes permanent "hangover" in the form of acute mental illness. Unborn children are at the most risk, some studies show.

In the aftermath of the 1918-19 pandemic, pioneering psychiatrist Dr. Karl Menninger noticed that many theretofore mentally healthy adults developed alarming psychological symptoms in the aftermath of a case of the Spanish flu.

"My recollection is that the pandemic in 1918-19 was an H1N1 swine flu, and that resulted in what was called encephalitis lethargica, in which adults would develop symptoms very similar to schizophrenia or Parkinson's," says Dr. Janet Hickey, a neuropsychiatrist and expert on schizophrenia at the award-winning local psychiatric clinic that bears Dr Menninger's name. (Founded in 1919, the Menninger Clinic moved here in 2003.)

The good news is that within five years most of those people got better, either completely or at least significantly. What's more, Dr. Hickey tells Hair Balls, so far that phenomenon has not been repeated in any subsequent flu pandemics. However, there is another mental-health hazard associated with flu outbreaks. Like measles, mumps, rubella and toxoplasmosis, in utero exposure to some influenza viruses has been correlated in many studies with putting babies at risk for developing schizophrenia later in life.

"In the first trimester you'll see reports of a seven- to eightfold increase," says Dr. Hickey. "In the second trimester, the reports are a little more inconsistent. It's possibly more like a two- or threefold increase in risk."

It's not known whether the influenza virus itself is to blame, she adds. "There are some mouse studies that are trying to look at whether or not the influenza gets in the baby's brain, or is that the mom's antibodies do something." She leans more to the antibodies explanation. She thinks that either the antibodies or other inflammatory markers could alter the way the child's brain is organized in a way that could remain undetected until the teenage years, when schizophrenia most often first manifests.

And since this post wasn't very funny, we'll hamfistedly lighten the mood with this totally heavvvyyy (and relevant!) '70s swine flu PSA.

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