The 2014 flu season is proving to be bad one with the number of reported cases and hospitalizations rising each week. In St Louis alone, we have had at least 15 deaths from the flu. Barnes-Jewish Hospital typically cares for the sickest of the sick and has had 9 deaths as result of flu infections. Unvaccinated pregnant women have lost their babies from becoming infected with the flu this year.
We know certain populations are particularly susceptible to the flu and more likely to get severely ill when infected with the flu; pregnant women are one these populations.
A pregnant woman who gets the flu is 5 times more likely to have serious complications from the flu, like pneumonia and ICU admission.
A pregnant woman who gets the flu is also more likely to develop complications of her pregnancy, including miscarriage and premature delivery. Even women who get the flu but do not become severely ill suffer from many unpleasant symptoms such as body aches, headaches, fever and fatigue that require them to take off from work and miss out on other life events.
Although there are medications to shorten the length and severity of a flu infection in pregnant and non-pregnant women, it is far better to not get the flu in the first place! The first-line defense against the flu is the flu vaccine. The 2013-2014 flu vaccine is well targeted against the versions of the flu we are seeing this year, which means it is offering very good protection against infection to those that received it. How well a vaccine protects a person from the flu depends on when they get the vaccine relative to the flu season, how old they are and any other medical conditions they may have.
In general, the flu vaccine is thought to reduce the chances of getting infected with the flu by 60% or more.
Flu vaccine clinics open annually at local hospitals, health departments and many drugstores in preparation for the flu season. In addition, clinics and your primary care doctor can administer the vaccines. For pregnant women, their OBGYN is a natural place to seek the flu vaccine. My office has given over 500 vaccines this season already! Pregnant women see their obstetrician frequently in pregnancy and the vaccine can be administered as part of a routine OB visit check-up. We now know that the flu vaccine is safe in pregnancy and that it is safe in all trimesters. The flu vaccine that we give to pregnant women is a piece of a dead virus; it is impossible to get the flu from the flu vaccine that we give to pregnant women. It does not harm the pregnancy nor increase the risk of miscarriage to receive the vaccine during any time in pregnancy. Because flu infections are so dangerous for pregnant women, there is a greater call to all obstetricians to get their patients vaccinated in pregnancy and the postpartum period.
Pregnant moms who get the flu vaccine also help protect their baby for up about 6 months after birth by giving the baby antibodies (the proteins that fight off the flu when a vaccinated person is exposed to the flu virus) through the placenta and breast milk.
Both the CDC and the American Congress of OBGYN encourage vaccination in pregnancy and offer educational resources that reassure patients of the safety of the vaccine on their websites. We, OBGYNs, are the front-line defense against influenza infection in our pregnant patients and new moms; with this year’s early and severe flu season, we have an even greater responsibility to get all of our women vaccinated now! If you have are pregnant or newly postpartum and have not had the 2013-2014 flu vaccine, call your OBGYN and see if they are still offering the vaccine in their office.
Whether vaccinated or not, avoiding contact with persons infected with the flu and good hygiene help reduce your risk of becoming infected. Use hand sanitizer and/or wash your hands frequently; especially in public places or when touching common areas like door handles, elevator buttons, buffet utensils and money. We can help keep each other healthy by getting vaccinated and practicing good hygiene! The flu season usually ends sometime in March to May so we can look forward to saying good bye to both these cold, dreary St. Louis winter days and the flu around the same time.
Rosanna Gray-Swain, MD, is a board-certified physician at West End Ob/Gyn. She is on staff at Barnes-Jewish Hospital.