Pregnant women have been among the groups of people most reluctant to get the flu vaccine. That's because many moms-to-be are, not surprisingly, afraid of putting anything "unnatural" into their bodies while pregnant, fearing harm to their babies.
In the case of flu, however, the virus is much worse than the vaccine, according to a new study. In fact, the flu vaccine appears entirely safe for mother and baby during pregnancy.
The research, published Wednesday in the New England Journal of Medicine, is a rigorous look at what happens to pregnant women when they do—or don't—get the flu vaccine. Researchers at the Norwegian Institute of Public Health examined the medical records of 117,347 pregnant women in Norway from 2009 through 2010 (the era of the swine flu, or H1N1, pandemic). They examined rates of flu vaccination, flu illness, and risk of miscarriage or stillbirth.
The study showed a 70 percent reduced risk of getting the flu among women who got the vaccine. Meanwhile, among women who got the flu, the risk of fetal death was almost double that of women who did not get the flu.
Moreover, the study showed that vaccination during pregnancy was not linked to an increased risk of fetal death.
Previous studies with the flu vaccine and pregnancy on animals suggested that it was safe. But anecdotal reports of miscarriage or stillbirth after a woman receives the flu vaccine have circulated in many communities. Some women hear these stories and believe the vaccine is unsafe, Dr. Camilla Stoltenberg, director general of the Norwegian Institute of Public Health, told TakePart. "We must continuously analyze the effects of flu and of vaccines to update our knowledge and be open for modifications of our advice to the public," she says. "It is therefore important to find out what the facts are. If flu vaccination can cause fetal death, we should immediately change our recommendations accordingly. Now that we have confirmed that the flu itself can cause fetal death we can be more assertive in our advice to pregnant women."
Another great reason for pregnant women to be vaccinated: Some immunity against the flu is passed on from the mother to her infant. "In addition to protecting the mother against severe influenza, the vaccine protects the child in the first months after birth, when the child is too young to be vaccinated," Stoltenberg says. "This study shows that vaccines can also protect the unborn child."
The study comes at a critical time. Flu is lashing the United States, and the illness is particularly hard on pregnant women in the second or third trimester of pregnancy. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), flu is worse for pregnant women because of changes in their immune system, heart, and lungs. Women who have the flu have a higher risk of preterm labor and delivery.
During the 2009 H1N1 flu epidemic, the rate of hospitalizations for pregnant women with flu was four times more than the rest of the population. Since then, obstetricians and gynecologists have made a big effort to vaccinate pregnant women. There is still time to get a vaccine for this year's flu season. (The nasal spray vaccine is not recommended for use in pregnant women, according to the CDC.)
Pregnant women, of course, aren't the only people whose flu vaccination rates are sub-par. Another new study, published in the February issue of the journal Pediatrics, found that less than 45 percent of children were vaccinated for the flu during the years 2004 and 2009. Children, especially young children, are super-efficient carriers of the flu virus, health experts say. Achieving high rates of vaccination in young children is a highly effective way to curb the spread of flu to infants, older children, and adults.
If you’re pregnant, did you get the flu vaccine or will you? Why or why not?
Shari Roan is an award-winning health writer based in Southern California. She is the author of three books on health and science subjects.