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Is It Safe to Get the Flu Shot During Pregnancy?

Monday, January 13th, 2014

If you are pregnant, chances are that you are questioning everything that goes into your body, and for good reason. It’s your job during pregnancy to nurture and protect your baby from a wide range of potential dangers. During the winter months, you may be wondering whether the flu vaccine is among those dangers.

It’s not. The fact is that it is completely safe for pregnant women to get the flu vaccine. In fact, getting vaccinated against the flu could make a big difference in your baby’s health; it could even be the difference between life and death. The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), the American Academy of Pediatrics, the ACOG (American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists), the American College of Nurse-Midwives, and numerous others all strongly recommend that pregnant women get flu shots.

Getting the flu while pregnant can cause serious complications. Pneumonia is one major concern. Pneumonia is potentially life-threatening and could be a risk factor for preterm labor. In addition, there is evidence that when you get the flu shot during pregnancy, your baby may continue to benefit from this protection after birth. Also, if you avoid catching the flu yourself postpartum, then your baby is less likely to be exposed to it at all. And protecting your newborn from the flu is important, because the flu is particularly dangerous for young babies, who can’t be vaccinated themselves before they are six months old. (Therefore, not only you but other family members as well should get flu shots.)

The flu vaccine may have no side effects at all, or you may notice mild side effects such as mild pain, tenderness, or redness at the site of the shot. Some people notice muscle aches, nausea, fever, or headaches after the shot, but these generally only last a day or two. Allergic reactions are extremely rare.

Anyone considering the flu shot, including pregnant women, should tell their doctors or anyone who is administering the shot if they have severe allergies to eggs or anything else that may be present in the shot. It is important to note that pregnant women should receive the flu shot, and not the nasal spray, which contains live flu virus.

Pregnant women can get flu shots at any point in their pregnancy. Getting vaccinated as early as possible to avoid being unprotected when flu season begins is best. However, if you have avoided getting the vaccine because you were concerned about safety during pregnancy, go ahead and get one even if it is later in the season. Flu season can last well into the spring, so even women getting vaccinated later on can still benefit.

Lately there has been some concern among people getting vaccinated about thimerosal, a preservative used in some flu shots. However, the CDC has uncovered no evidence that thimerosal presents any risk whatsoever. Besides, the benefits of getting a flu shot far outweigh even any theoretical risk. If you are worried, though, don’t let it stop you from getting a flu shot; ask your doctor about thimerosal-free vaccine. If it isn’t available in your area, go for the regular flu shot, and don’t worry – it’s much safer than not getting one at all.

– Yvonne S. Thornton, M. D., M. P. H.

Not Receiving Influenza Vaccinations Increases Infant Mortality

Monday, July 8th, 2013

There has been a lot of talk about vaccinations in the past several years, and the camp of people on the side of going vaccination-free is getting bigger every year. That is something that frightens me as a doctor, as vaccinations are the single most effective way to prevent disease, not just among individuals but also among the general population, known as herd immunity.  Vaccination acts as a “firewall” in the spread of disease.  In herd immunity, the more folks that are vaccinated against a contagious disease, the less likely a single individual will become infected.

However, part of being a doctor is a willingness to look at all the evidence as it is presented to you. As the debate about vaccinations continues, an increasing number of researchers are looking at the effects that vaccinations have on individuals, and whether they have the potential to do more harm than good among certain groups.

Pregnant women are a group of major concern. There are a lot of steps and preventative measures that a woman must take in order to maintain the health of her child while she is pregnant, and vaccinations have always been recommended to prevent the devastating effects of the Influenza virus. Doctors in one study have conducted research on pregnant women and the influenza virus, as well as the mortality rates in the infants of those that choose not to be vaccinated.  While vaccinations against the Influenza virus pose no significant threat to women or to their unborn children, women who go without the vaccination show much higher rates of infection, and those that were infected show much higher rates of fetal mortality.  Another vaccine, known as Tdap, for tetanus, diptheria and pertussis (whooping cough), should be administered to all pregnant women in their third trimester (27 weeks to 36 weeks) in order to maximize the maternal antibody response and passive antibodies that will protect the newborn.

The results are not surprising to doctors, but they are worrying when you take into consideration the fact that this year, many women will choose not to be vaccinated, and will choose not to vaccinate their children. While many trends are silly but otherwise harmless, this “popular” trend could be absolutely devastating. There are certain vaccinations that should not be performed during pregnancy, such as measles, mumps and rubella (MMR), varicella (chickenpox), zoster (shingles), anthrax, BCG (tuberculosis), Japanese encephalitis, typhoid, yellow fever and smallpox, but women should trust their doctors to guide them in the right direction when it comes to making these decisions about the necessary vaccinations.  Choosing to vaccinate against Influenza, even while pregnant, poses virtually no risks. Choosing not to vaccinate could be a big mistake.

– Yvonne S. Thornton, M. D., M. P. H.