It’s natural enough for pregnant women in Texas to worry this year about catching Zika virus, which can cause severe birth defects in their babies. At this point, there is no cure and no vaccine for the mosquito-borne virus.
But there is a worrisome disease that pregnant women can protect their unborn babies from—the flu. It doesn’t have the exotic fear factor of Zika, but the flu is very dangerous for pregnant women and their babies, and far more prevalent. Texas has experienced fewer than 97 Zika cases so far, but thousands of people were stricken with flu during the most recent flu season. August, National Immunization Awaareness Month, is the perfect time for women to learn about the dangers of flu during pregnancy and how to protect themselves and their babies.
Women who get the flu during pregnancy are more likely to go into labor early and have premature babies, a serious health concern. The mother’s fever from flu can cause some birth defects. In addition, newborn babies gain significant protection from the flu if their mothers were vaccinated during pregnancy. That’s particularly important because of how frail newborns are, and how dangerous a disease like the flu can be for them.
A study published in July 2016 in JAMA Pediatrics found that flu shots given to pregnant women were 86 percent effective at protecting their babies for the first eight weeks after birth.
Of course, it’s important for pregnant women to protect themselves as well as their babies. Pregnant women are prone to more serious cases of flu, with higher rates of hospitalization and death. For many years, doctors thought this was because of a slightly weakened immune system during pregnancy, but a 2014 study concluded that pregnant women’s immune systems appeared to have a “supercharged” reaction to the virus, according to a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The overly strong inflammatory reaction might “tip the balance from a healthy immune response into one that is destructive, resulting in increased disease severity,” wrote the authors, researchers at Stanford University.
The flu shot is safe for women and their fetuses during any stage of pregnancy, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports, though pregnant women should not receieve the nasal spray version of the flu vaccine. In addition to getting vaccinated, women should protect themselves with frequent hand-washing and avoiding touching the face and eyes, as well as staying away from places where the flu is known to be going around.
Despite all the up sides, and the lack of down sides, only about half of pregnant women get flu shots. That’s a shame. Pregnant women can’t do much about Zika right now, except avoiding mosquitos. But they can and should protect themselves and their babies against the much more commonplace viral danger that strikes every year: Flu.
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