Each year, pregnant women have certain fears around getting their flu shot. But be assured: Every year, it is extremely important for them to receive this vaccine that helps protect both mother and baby.
A 2015 review of the science related to this topic puts it bluntly. Pregnant women who are sickened by the flu are more likely than the general population to get a severe case that lends them in the hospital. The risks to their babies are grave.
“Compared to the general population, pregnant women are more often hospitalized and admitted to an intensive care unit due to influenza virus infection,” the authors wrote. “For hospitalized patients, increased rates of preterm birth and fetal/neonatal death are reported.”
But why does the flu seem to have a more severe impact on pregnant women? And in what ways is it harmful to the fetus?
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention describes it this way:
Changes in the immune system, heart, and lungs during pregnancy make pregnant women (and women up to two weeks postpartum) more prone to severe illness from flu, including illness resulting in hospitalization. Flu also may be harmful for a pregnant woman’s developing baby. A common flu symptom is fever, which may be associated with neural tube defects and other adverse outcomes for a developing baby.
Flu season will begin in just a couple of months, and pregnant women should be thinking now about all the important steps they will take toward avoiding getting sick. After all, this is National Immunization Awareness Month. Vaccination should be foremost in expectant mothers’ flu-prevention thoughts.
“Getting a flu shot is the first and most important step in protecting against flu,” the CDC reports.
And the benefits go beyond pregnancy. The flu shot is recommended for babies 6 months and older – but not for newborns. In a way, by being vaccinated, a pregnant woman is also safely vaccinating her newborn.
“The flu shot given during pregnancy has been shown to protect both the mother and her baby for several months after birth from flu,” the CDC reports. “Studies in young healthy adults show that getting a flu shot reduces the risk of illness by 40% to 60% during seasons when the flu vaccine is well-matched to circulating viruses.”
Here’s a new reason for pregnant women to embrace the flu shot: A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in March found that women who had been vaccinated against the flu also were also less likely to get whooping cough. The disease is particularly dangerous for newborn infants.
Yet according to a CDC report earlier this year, only about a third of pregnant women are vaccinated against the flu. For many of these women, more helpful interaction with their doctors could have made a difference. More than 40% of them reported in a survey that their doctors hadn’t recommended and offered the vaccine to them. For more than a quarter of them, the doctor hadn’t even recommended the vaccine, and only about 6% of those women were vaccinated.
Some people continue to believe the myth that they can get the flu from the flu shot. That really isn’t possible; as the CDC explains: “Flu vaccines that are administered with a needle are currently made in two ways: the vaccine is made either with a) flu vaccine viruses that have been ‘inactivated’ and are therefore not infectious, or b) with no flu vaccine viruses at all (which is the case for recombinant influenza vaccine).”
Some women are understandably concerned about a study published last fall that found a small link between the flu shot and slightly higher-than-normal miscarriage rates in women who had had the shot two years in a row. The jury is still out on what that study means, especially after several other studies found no association between the two. The researchers themselves were puzzled and said that this did not mean that pregnant women should avoid being vaccinated. Doctors groups quickly came forward to confirm that the flu shot was an important component of maternal and infant protection.
An op-ed written by TIP’s President and CEO Allison Winnike explained why the study meant that the issue should continue to be studied, and not that pregnant women should fear the flu shot. The op-ed, published in the Austin American-Statesman, said:
For one thing, it is extremely rare for any single study to prove that something is true. Medical advice is based on a body of evidence, with many studies involving thousands of patients whose findings all point in the same direction. That is what today’s vaccine recommendations are based on — a tremendous amount of research, with more going on all the time, finding time after time that vaccines are both safe and effective.
At this point, pregnant women have an extremely good reason to get the flu shot. What we know for sure is that flu is very dangerous to expectant mothers and their babies, and the vaccine is the best tool for preventing it.
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