Pregnant women tend to be very cautious about what they put in their bodies, and unfortunately, vaccinations are no exception. However, a new study published in Obstetrics and Gynecology has not only added to the evidence that the flu vaccine is safe for pregnant women, it also suggests that the benefits extend beyond seasonal immunity.
The study, led by Dr. Jeanne Sheffield, a specialist in obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, aimed to discern what effects the flu vaccine might have on a growing fetus or newborn when given in the first trimester of pregnancy. As it turns out, the infants of the nearly 9,000 vaccinated women in the study did not have a higher rate of birth defects than those babies born to the 77,000 pregnant women who declined the vaccine. The incidence in both groups was about 2 percent, leading the researchers to conclude that the vaccine could not be linked to an increase in birth defects.
There were several unexpected outcomes of the study, however. One was the lower rate of stillbirths among the infants of the vaccinated women. Among this group, the rate was 0.2 percent, compared to the rate of 0.4 percent among unvaccinated women. Another was that the rate of premature delivery among the vaccinated women was also lower, at 5 percent instead of the 6 percent in the unvaccinated group. While the study authors acknowledge that they cannot be certain whether the flu vaccine was responsible for these lower rates of stillbirth and premature delivery, they suggest that it s possible it is known that pregnant women are more susceptible to severe cases of flu.
Regardless, further evidence that the flu vaccine is safe for pregnant women is good news, since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other groups recommend that all pregnant women get a seasonal flu shot. This is because pregnancy increases a woman's risk of contracting a severe case of the flu and its complications, such as pneumonia. Flu during pregnancy may also raise the risk of preterm delivery and fetal distress. Nevertheless, the vaccination rate among pregnant women is still too low, at approximately 40 percent. The study authors hope that their findings will serve to further reassure doctors and women who are hesitant.
The flu vaccine is a must for just about everyone, says ACSH s Dr. Gilbert Ross. We know very well that it s safe and effective. But since it s extra important for pregnant woman to be vaccinated against the flu, another study demonstrating its safety is very welcome news. And since studies have shown that the most important factor in determining whether a woman gets her flu shot is her doctor s advice, obstetricians should urge their patients to get vaccinated.