Pregnant women and those who expect to become pregnant are being urged to get flu shots, especially the vaccine for H1N1 (swine) flu. But that’s not always a simple decision for a woman once she knows she is pregnant. For most, protecting the health of the fetus is their No. 1 concern. This means many of them won't take a medicine or have a medical procedure unless they know that it is absolutely safe for the baby.
A vaccine against the novel H1N1 flu virus is being shipped and has arrived in many states. Its rapid development and production is a terrific achievement. The vaccine will help to protect against the virus commonly called swine flu.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that pregnant women should get the vaccine. In fact, they are on the priority list to get the vaccine first.
Pregnancy puts women at increased risk of getting serious health problems if they get seasonal flu. We don't completely understand why this happens. The risk is even higher if they get infected with the H1N1 flu virus. It can even be life-threatening.
This risk probably is higher than usual because most pregnant women have not been exposed to flu strains similar to the new H1N1 virus. So they don't have any natural immunity. Older people, especially those over age 60, do seem to have some natural immunity. This is one of the reasons younger people have a higher priority to get the vaccine.
It is understandable that pregnant women are anxious about choosing to get the swine flu vaccine. The vaccine is too new to give pregnant women assurance that it is 100 percent safe. But the safety of the H1N1 flu shot should be equal to the well established safety of previous flu shots. The swine flu shot, similar to the seasonal flu shot, is made from purified killed virus. There is no chance that you or your baby can get an infection from the vaccine.
Pregnant women should get the H1N1 flu shot and the seasonal flu shot for several reasons:
- They can protect infants who cannot receive vaccination. The mother can pass protective antibodies to her fetus. They may help protect the baby after it's born.
- If you do get the flu, you have a higher than average risk of getting pneumonia. Pneumonia lowers your blood oxygen level. This means your fetus may not receive the oxygen needed for normal development.
- Having the flu in pregnancy increases your risk of a miscarriage or giving birth too early.
- Women who have a fever during early pregnancy are more likely to deliver a baby with a neural tube defect, such as spina bifida.
Some people are concerned about thimerosal, a preservative used in many vaccines. The safety of thimerosal has been extensively studied. There is no scientific evidence of any bad effects on babies when mothers get shots containing this preservative.
Pregnant women have an understandable reluctance to getting a shot that has not had thorough testing. Certainly more testing would make all of us feel more secure about its safety. But in balance, I believe the risks of not having the shot are greater than the unlikely, but remotely possible, side effects that have not been seen so far.
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