Women who become sick with the flu early in pregnancy are twice as likely to have a baby with a serious birth defect of the brain, spine, or heart than women who don’t catch the virus.
It’s unclear whether it’s the high fever associated with the flu, or the flu itself that contributes to the increased risk of birth defects, experts say. But reducing the risk of birth defects is one reason why all pregnant women and women thinking of having a baby should get an annual flu shot.
Despite the benefits, only half of all pregnant women in the United States get a flu shot each season, leaving thousands of moms-to-be and their babies at increased risk of serious illness.
“The annual flu shot should be a priority in prenatal care,” said Edward R.B. McCabe, MD, March of Dimes chief medical officer. “Health care providers should offer all their pregnant patients a flu shot each year and if they don’t offer it, then women should ask for it.”
Pregnant women should make their appointments now, so they can be sure to get their vaccine early in the season, Dr. McCabe added.
Pregnant women and those planning to become pregnant need a flu shot because the normal changes to a pregnant woman’s immune system, heart and lungs put her at increased risk of the harmful effects of flu infection, Dr. McCabe says. Also, babies born to mothers who got their flu shots while pregnant are protected from serious illness from influenza during their first six months of life. Immunized women also have a lower risk of flu-related hospitalizations for chronic asthma, heart conditions, diabetes, a weakened immune system, and other health-related problems.
Studies that looked at thousands of pregnant women who received the seasonal flu vaccine have shown that immunized moms do not have a higher risk of preterm babies or babies with birth defects than unimmunized women. Researchers also found that immunized women are less likely to experience a stillbirth.
The CDC recommends that everyone six months of age or older, including pregnant women, be vaccinated annually against the influenza virus.
In addition to getting their annual flu shots, pregnant women can lower their risks of catching influenza by limiting contact with others who are sick; not touching the eyes, nose and mouth; washing hands with soap and water before touching others; using hand sanitizers; using hot, soapy water or a dishwasher to wash the dishes and utensils; and not sharing dishes, glasses, utensils, or toothbrushes. Also, those who live with pregnant women, or who are in close contact with them, should be immunized each year.
Pregnant women who develop influenza infection symptoms, such as sudden onset fever, muscle aches, and cough should contact their health providers as soon as possible to begin an anti-viral treatment.
The March of Dimes works to improve the health of babies by preventing birth defects, premature birth and infant mortality. The March of Dimes is the leading nonprofit organization for pregnancy and baby health. For more than 75 years, moms and babies have benefited from March of Dimes research, education, vaccines, and breakthroughs. For the latest resources and information, visit marchofdimes.com or nacersano.org. Find us on Facebook and Twitter.
SOURCE: March of Dimes