TROY — One of the greatest gifts an expectant mother can give herself and her unborn baby is to be vaccinated from the seasonal influenza virus.
The flu virus is a harmful illness for most healthy Americans, but it can carry an added risk for pregnant women. Health complications from the flu, such as pneumonia, can be serious and even deadly for pregnant women, according to March of Dimes. Research has shown that pregnant women who get the flu are more likely to experience preterm labor and premature birth.
The flu shot is completely safe for most pregnant women and, in fact, helps them during a time when their immune system is not operating at normal capacity, said Rashmi Bolinjkar, MD, an OB/Gyn with Upper Valley Women’s Center in Troy.
“A woman’s immune system is lowered slightly during pregnancy in order to keep her body from rejecting the unborn baby,” she said. “Changes in a woman’s immune system, heart and lungs during pregnancy make pregnant and post-partum women more prone to severe illness from the flu as well as hospitalizations and even death.”
A pregnant woman who receives a flu vaccination also ensures that her unborn baby will be protected against the virus once it is born.
“Getting the flu shot is the first and foremost important step in protecting pregnant women against the flu,” Dr. Bolinjkar, a Premier Health Specialists’ physician, said. “The flu shot given during pregnancy has been shown to protect the mother, and her unborn baby up to six months after birth.”
Vaccinating a pregnant woman is extremely important, but the responsibility extends beyond the mom once the baby is born, said Susan Davis-Brown, MD, with Brookville Family Medicine.
“Another way you protect a baby who is too young to receive a shot is to vaccinate those who help take care of them,” Dr. Davis-Brown, a Premier HealthNet physician, said. “You create a cocoon of people who have been vaccinated from influenza so that they don’t bring anything from the outside in to expose the baby.”
Children are not able to receive the flu vaccination until they reach six months of age. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), children are more likely to get the flu or have flu-related complications because their immune systems are still developing. CDC research indicates that an average of 20,000 children under the age of 5 are hospitalized for flu-related complications each year. The severity of flu-related complications is most common in children under the age of 2, the CDC said.
“This is a preventable problem,” Dr. Davis-Brown said. “No one says they don’t care if they place a baby at risk for getting the flu. I just don’t think people think about the consequences. We need to learn to think about the flu shot from a different perspective. You may not be at risk for complications from the flu, but what about those in your life who are? If you don’t do it for yourself, then do it for those who can’t protect themselves.”
Follow these steps created by the CDC to reduce your child’s risk of getting the flu or from experiencing complications from the illness:
Immunize caregivers — Pregnant women and families with small children should receive the influenza vaccination as soon as it is available. Talk to extended family members or caregivers who have contact with a young child to encourage them to become immunized. It’s important to remember that there are exceptions to the rule. People with severe, life-threatening allergies to the vaccine or any ingredient in the vaccine should not receive the flu shot. Those who have an allergy to eggs or have ever had Guillain-Barre Syndrome should talk to a physician prior to receiving the flu vaccine.
Everyday precautions — Encourage diligent hand washing during flu season. Give careful thought to taking young infants out in public during flu season. Ask visitors to your home to come at another time if they are not feeling well or have been exposed to the virus.
Seek medical attention — Health care providers should be consulted as soon as possible when children under the age of 5 with pre-existing health conditions begin exhibiting flu-like symptoms. Those who are exposed to or caring for someone with the flu should ask their physician about anti-viral medications.
For more information on the flu vaccine or to find a Premier HealthNet or Premier Health Specialist physician near you, visit www.premierhealthnet.com/doctor.