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August 5th, 2009
12:05 PM ET

Swine flu vaccine for pregnant women

By Miriam Falco
CNN Medical News managing editor

Last October, I blogged about why health officials say pregnant women need to get a flu shot. (Full Story) Reporting on the need to get vaccinated against the influenza virus is something medical reporters do every year. Why in October? Because that's when the vaccine is usually available and when flu season is right around the corner. Why pregnant women? Well, as I learned last year, if a pregnant woman gets the flu, it could lead to serious complications including pneumonia, dehydration and hospitalization. Because pregnancy changes a woman's immune system, she can get a lot sicker than women who aren't pregnant. She can even die from it.

What was even more alarming was learning that the flu can also lead to preterm labor and fetal demise, according to one of the top flu experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Carolyn Bridges. The CDC also found that less than 14 percent of pregnant women between the ages of 18 and 44 actually got a flu shot during the 2006-2007 flu season. I was pregnant last October. After speaking to health officials and several moms who had experienced the flu and told me they’d never been so sick before, I decided that for me, avoiding the risks to me and my unborn child was worth getting a flu shot. Apparently it worked because I didn't get sick.

But now it's August, not October. So why are we thinking about the flu already? Because of the new strain, H1N1. Health officials are now saying that pregnant women not only need to get a seasonal flu shot, but they also should be vaccinated against this new, 2009 H1N1 pandemic flu, better known as the "swine flu" (even though pigs have nothing to do with it) - once the vaccine has been tested and deemed safe.

Last week, the CDC's point person for this new strain of flu virus, Dr. Anne Schuchat, told reporters that pregnant women are “disproportionately” affected by this virus and that they have a fourfold increase of being hospitalized compared with the general population.

The H1N1 virus is causing worse complications and severe infections in pregnant women, Schuchat said.

A study published in the medical journal The Lancet found that pregnant women are more likely to die from this virus and that vaccinating them is one important step to prevent such serious complications.

Health officials told reporters this week that once the H1N1 vaccine is proven safe and becomes available, those in the high priority groups will have to get two H1N1 flu shots – three weeks apart, in order to get full immunity. Those high priority groups include not only pregnant women, but also household contacts of children under 6 months of age (because those children can't get the vaccine); children and young adults age 6 months to 24 years; health care workers and emergency medical personnel; and non-elderly adults with pre-existing medical conditions. It will take two weeks after the second flu shot to build up to full immunity, which means the whole process to protect yourself from H1N1 takes a total of five weeks. Since this new flu vaccine isn't expected to roll out until mid-October, health officials don't expect the population to be protected until the end of December.

Given the experience earlier this spring, where swine flu rapidly spread in some schools and colleges and other places with lots of people in close quarters, health officials are bracing for a big uptick in people getting sick as the regular flu and the new H1N1 flu viruses spread during the cold weather months.

So this year, I once again am pondering what to do. This time it's a lot more difficult because come October, my little son will be just old enough to fall into the priority "six months to 24 years-old" category. Should he get two brand new flu shots plus a seasonal flu shot? It's not an easy decision. Fortunately, I still have a little time to think this over.

How about you? Are you pregnant? Will you get seasonal and H1N1 flu shots when available? Are you a parent of a newborn or infant and are you planning vaccinations for yourself or your child?

Editor’s Note: Medical news is a popular but sensitive subject rooted in science. We receive many comments on this blog each day; not all are posted. Our hope is that much will be learned from the sharing of useful information and personal experiences based on the medical and health topics of the blog. We encourage you to focus your comments on those medical and health topics and we appreciate your input. Thank you for your participation.


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