Flu vaccine averts millions of illnesses; but pregnant women still reluctant, at a cost to them and their babies

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The CDC s latest estimates of the benefits (during the 2012-13 season) of getting a flu shot was just released, and while the efficacy of the vaccine is below that hoped for (about 51 percent), yet the number of illnesses (6.6 million) and serious illnesses averted (over 3 million) and hospitalizations prevented (79,000) makes vaccination against the flu one of the most important, simple and safe steps a person can take to stay healthy.

Influenza kills between 4,000 and 50,000 Americans each year, and the CDC and other public health authorities recommend that everyone 6 months of age and older get an annual flu shot. Nevertheless, only 45 percent of us heeded that advice last season.

A key sector of the population who should be urged to receive their flu shots are pregnant women. As ACSH said last year addressing this issue: Pregnant women tend to be very cautious about what they put in their bodies, and unfortunately, vaccinations are no exception. We discussed a particular, large study of the effects of flu vaccination on pregnancy outcomes, and the findings were:

...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 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.

The CDC report yielded this information regarding vaccination rate among pregnant women for the two seasons, 2009-2010 and 2010-2011: Seasonal influenza vaccination coverage among women with live births varied among the participating areas, and the median coverage among the states increased from 50.1% during the 2009 10 season to 54.8% in the 2010 11 season. For the 2010 11 season, the percentage of respondents who reported that their health-care provider recommended vaccination varied by area, ranging from 53.7% to 89.5% (median: 74.3%). Among those who received a provider recommendation or offer of vaccination, median vaccination coverage was 67.1%; among those who did not receive a provider recommendation or offer of vaccination, median vaccination coverage was 18.6%. Provider recommendation or offer of vaccination was associated with higher influenza vaccination coverage across all areas.

ACSH s Dr. Gilbert Ross had this comment: The increase in vaccination rate is good news, although the rate is still far too low. But the key messages emanating from these two CDC reports is crystal clear: 1- preventing millions of serious illnesses and tens of thousands of deaths is as simple as raising the level of flu vaccine protection from its unacceptably low current rate; and 2- doctors caring for pregnant women ob-gyns and primary care docs must do a better job of educating their pregnant patients about flu vaccine. The telling figure is this: among women whose doctor failed to advise them to have a flu shot, only 18 percent chose to get the protection, as compared to two-thirds of those whose caregiver rendered them the simple standard of care appropriate to maintain their (and their babies ) health. To put it another way, doctors who fail to urge their pregnant patients to get a flu shot are committing malpractice.