Babies under 6 months old might be the only group of "healthy" kids that can't receive the flu vaccine, but new research shows that when moms-to-be opt for the flu shot they may get a "two-for-one benefit" — they could very well be passing the immunization's protection on to their babies.
Looking at a group of nearly 350 women during pregnancy and their infants 6 months after delivery, researchers found that women who were given the flu shot during their pregnancy reduced their infants' risk of getting the flu by more than 60% in the first half of the babies' first year — when little ones are at the greatest risk of flu complications and hospitalizations. Plus, the shot fended off more than a third of fever-inducing respiratory illnesses in both the mothers and their babies.
Although the flu shot is recommended for pregnant women, only about 15% actually get the vaccine each year, says the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, whose researchers led the study.
What This Means to You
Many moms-to-be are hesitant to get any immunization when they're expecting — and with good reason. Doctors recommend skipping most vaccines during pregnancy. But that's not the case when it comes to the flu.
In fact, the flu vaccine is recommended during any stage of pregnancy — first, second, and third trimester. And doctors even go so far as to say that any woman who "will" (or might) be pregnant during flu season should get the vaccine — that's even those who are trying to conceive but aren't pregnant yet.
According to the 2008 recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control's (CDC) Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP), the flu vaccine during pregnancy:
- is safe — studies show "no adverse fetal effects and no adverse effects during infancy or early childhood"
- can curb flu-related problems for expectant moms, who are at higher risk of complications from the illness
Now recommended for all kids 6 months old on up, the flu vaccine is especially important for anyone who:
- lives or works with babies, toddlers, and preschoolers or anyone else in any of the high-risk groups
- has a chronic medical condition
- works in the health care or assisted living fields and has direct contact with patients
But pregnant women should only get the flu shot made with the inactivated virus. That means the flu nasal spray, FluMist, is out of the question since it's made with live flu virus. That's because live-virus vaccines (those containing a live organism) carry the risk that the weakened virus in the vaccine may be passed along to an unborn baby and cause illness.
Even if you're all for combating the flu during a time when you may be already feeling enough achiness and nausea, you may still wonder about the mercury-containing preservative thimerosal, still used in the flu vaccine (the only one given to kids 2 and under that contains any of the mercury-containing preservative thimerosal).
So, here's the lowdown: Despite the lack of scientific evidence that it causes any harm (specifically, autism), manufacturers began removing thimerosal from kids' vaccines in 1999 to reduce childhood exposure to mercury and other heavy metals. But study after study has found no scientific evidence that autism is caused by any single vaccine, combination vaccines (like the measles, mumps, rubella vaccine called MMR), or thimerosal itself.
And the CDC's immunization committee says, "The benefits of influenza vaccination for all recommended groups, including pregnant women and young children, outweigh concerns on the basis of a theoretical risk from thimerosal exposure through vaccination."
Still, if you're concerned, talk to your doctor and ask if you can get a "thimerosal-free" or "preservative-free (trace thimerosal)" vaccine during your pregnancy or for your kids.
Only a few other vaccines (other than the flu shot) are considered safe during pregnancy, and doctors usually recommend them to pregnant women only if it's really necessary. Your doctor may say it's OK if:
- there's a good chance that you could be (or have been) exposed to a particular disease or infection and the benefits of vaccinating you outweigh the potential risks
- an infection would pose a risk to you or your baby
- the vaccine is unlikely to cause harm
If you are not sure about whether a vaccine might be recommended for you, be sure to talk to your doctor, who can help you decide if it would ultimately be safer to get the vaccine than risk getting the actual disease and potentially passing it on to your baby. And make sure to let all of your doctors and health care professionals know that you are (or might be) pregnant or trying to conceive before getting any vaccination.
Reviewed by: Steven Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: September 2008
Sources: "Effectiveness of Maternal Influenza Immunization in Mothers and Infants," The New England Journal of Medicine, published online Sept. 17, 2008 (to be published in the Oct. 9, 2008 edition)."Prevention and Control of Influenza: Recommendations of the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP), 2008," Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR), Aug. 8, 2008. "Guidelines for Vaccinating Pregnant Women," CDC, updated May 5, 2007. "Guiding Principles in Development of ACIP Recommendations for Vaccination during Pregnancy and Breastfeeding," CDC's Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (Workgroup on the Use of Vaccines during Pregnancy and Breastfeeding), April, 2008.