October 6th, 2008
12:44 PM ET

Pregnant women need flu shots

By Miriam Falco
CNN Medical Managing Editor

Every year, we report on who should get a flu shot: the elderly; those over 50; children age 6 months to 5 years old; pregnant women; people with chronic disease.

But apparently the message isn’t getting through about pregnant women.

Both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommend that women who will be pregnant during the flu season, which runs from October to May, get a flu shot.

However, a new poll commissioned by the non-profit National Women's Health Resource Center found that only 25 percent were aware of these recommendations and only 20 percent agreed that getting a flu shot while pregnant is important.

The latest data from the a CDC health survey show that less than 14 percent of pregnant women between ages 18 and 44 actually got a flu shot during the 2006/2007 flu season.

Flu kills an average of 36,000 people and leads to hundreds of thousands of hospitalizations each year, according to the CDC.

An informal (and very unscientific) survey of my own found that some women weren’t aware that young women who happened to be pregnant fall in the high-risk category. Others who already had children didn’t think it was safe to get a flu shot during pregnancy.

So how bad can it be if you get the flu during or right after pregnancy? Very bad, according to mother of four Lisa Madden. Three months after giving birth to triplets, “"for the first time in my life I got the flu,” she said. “I was the sickest I ever was in my life."

She was laid up in bed for 10 days, her mother and mother-in-law had to come in to help care for the babies, and even her husband had to take off work because she was so sick.

“That was the year I learned my lesson” (about not getting a flu shot), she said. She now preaches the vaccination’s importance.

Dr. Carolyn Bridges, the CDC’s flu expert, said that complications of the flu in pregnant women can be the same as in other people - pneumonia, dehydration, hospitalization. But the flu can also lead to pre-term labor, fetal demise and worsening respiratory function.

There may be other reasons that pregnant women don’t get a flu shot. Only 51 percent of women who participated in this new poll thought it was safe to get a flu shot during pregnancy. Dr. Jeanne Santoli, deputy director of the CDC’s Immunizations Services Division, said that flu shots are safe at any time during pregnancy - during all three trimesters.

Even though ACOG and the CDC say flu shots are safe; some women are concerned about the preservative thimerosal in flu shots. If that’s the case, women can request a preservative-free flu shot. It may cost a little more.

Convenience is another thing. Although many OB-GYNs may recommend that a pregnant woman get a flu shot, they may not offer it in their practice. Having to go somewhere else may contribute to not getting one. It’s inconvenient, you forget, you just don’t get around to it.

Some women just may not be aware of how serious the complications can be for Mom or baby.

Soon-to-be first-time mom Virginia Bader is seven and a half months pregnant. She credits spending a lot of time with her elderly grandmother for being aware of those at high-risk for complications of the flu. “It occurred to me that I was in a high-risk category myself,” she said. She asked her doctor two months ago about getting a flu shot. It was too early then, but she said, “I will be getting it soon now."

“You don't have a lot of control over many things when you're pregnant; this is something you can take control of.”

Are you pregnant or have a new baby? Are you planning on getting a flu shot during this flu season?

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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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.