Expecting good health
Author: Sara Rider

Funny thing about vaccines: 50 years ago they were considered major advances against all-too-common illnesses. Over the last decade, they have often been reviled as the possible cause of a range of problems – problems often considered more debilitating than the conditions the vaccines were supposed to prevent. But one very common vaccine, the flu vaccine, may offer valuable protection to pregnant women and their unborn children.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), anyone who is pregnant should get a flu shot. Flu season typically begins in October and runs through March, according to the CDC. So even if you haven’t gotten a flu shot yet, there’s still time to get the vaccine and be protected.

“Flu shots are absolutely recommended during pregnancy,” says Beth Nauert, M.D., a pediatrician with The Austin Diagnostic Clinic. “The benefits of flu vaccine for the mother, child and other people around the mother outweigh the possible risks of the vaccine.”

Dangers of the flu
According to the CDC, flu is more likely to cause severe illness in pregnant women than it would in women who are not pregnant. This is because of changes that occur in the immune system, heart and lungs during pregnancy. The CDC states that these changes make pregnant women more prone to a severe case of the flu, which can lead to hospitalization and even death. Complications from the flu in pregnant women can contribute to serious problems for their unborn babies, including premature labor and delivery. Part of the problem is that flu often causes fever, and fever can lead to other complications.

“It’s safe to say that any febrile illness during pregnancy could pose a risk to the development of the unborn child and the risk of triggering a miscarriage,” warns Dr. Nauert.

Common concern
Some pregnant women may hesitate to get the flu vaccine out of the fear that the vaccine could cause autism in their unborn children.

“In one study of children in Denmark who had autism, the authors of the study found an increase in autism,” says Dr. Nauert. However, she reports that part of the problem with the findings is that the participants in the study “self-reported the flu or fever during pregnancy.” There is no way of knowing if they had either the flu or a fever, as there was no medical verification of their symptoms. “This is only one study,” explains Dr. Nauert. “We don’t know how many of the mothers who said they had ‘the flu’ actually were tested for or had influenza.”

What doctors do agree on is that the flu can be a serious illness for pregnant women.

“Flu vaccines are recommended for anyone six months or older who is not allergic to eggs, unless they have some other rare contraindication,” says Dr. Nauert.

“Although many people don’t think of influenza as a serious illness, it is often very serious and a cause of hospitalization, secondary infections such as pneumonia and even death.”

Staying well
Since it takes about two weeks for a flu vaccine to begin offering protection, it’s important to be vaccinated as soon as you can. If you’re pregnant, the CDC recommends getting a flu shot, and not using the nasal spray form of the vaccine. The flu shot uses an inactivated flu virus, so it is safe for mother and unborn baby during any stage of pregnancy, according to the CDC. By comparison, the nasal spray vaccine is made from a live flu virus and is not recommended during pregnancy, or if you are trying to become pregnant.

Research has shown that the flu vaccine also offers some protection to your unborn child; the antibodies you develop to protect yourself from the flu will pass on to your baby. According to the Mayo Clinic, a 2011 study showed that babies whose mothers had the flu vaccine while they were pregnant were nearly 50 percent less likely to have the flu during their first flu season than were the babies of women who didn’t take the flu vaccine while pregnant.

Since the flu vaccine only protects against the strains of flu contained in this year’s vaccine, you can still get the flu, even if you are vaccinated. If you are pregnant and have flu-like symptoms, the CDC recommends calling your doctor immediately. If you have a fever, the CDC recommends taking acetaminophen to lower your fever, since fever can cause birth defects in an unborn child.

If your doctor thinks you have the flu, he or she may prescribe Tamiflu. Research has shown that Tamiflu is safe to use during pregnancy, but remember that it is most effective if it is taken during the first 48 hours after the onset of symptoms, so it is important to contact your doctor immediately if you suspect the flu.

Avoiding the flu if you’re pregnant also means taking other precautions. This includes things like lots of hand washing with soap and water and avoiding contact with people who are sick.

“Flu is extremely contagious,” cautions Dr. Nauert. “Flu vaccine does not prevent all cases of influenza, but it’s a great start to having a healthier, happier winter for both children and their mothers.”

Sara Rider is a native Austinite who has worked with physicians and hospitals throughout Texas. She frequently writes freelance articles on health topics for newspapers and magazines.

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