Monday, August 6, 2018

Protect Your Baby by Getting Vaccinated During Pregnancy

By C. Mary Healy, MD, Houston
Member, Texas Medical Association (TMA) Be Wise — Immunize℠ Physician Advisory Panel and TMA Committee on Infectious Diseases

Pregnant women share everything with their babies. One of the most important things they share is protection against infectious diseases, protection that’s sometimes called “nature’s gift.”  When pregnant women have antibodies to infectious diseases, they share them with their baby before birth to help give early protection to the baby until he or she can be vaccinated or until the baby’s immune system is more mature. That’s why getting vaccinated during pregnancy should be a priority for every pregnant woman who wants to keep herself and her child healthy.  

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends women get vaccinated against influenza (the flu) and pertussis (whooping cough) during each pregnancy, because both illnesses are dangerous for moms and infants. While some people consider flu a mild illness, it can be deadly for pregnant women and babies.  Healthy pregnant women, on average, are five times more likely to develop severe complications from the flu and require hospitalization, than women who are not pregnant. Some may die.  

Their babies also are at risk of complications if they get the flu, because they can’t be vaccinated until they are 6 months old. To be fully protected, babies need two doses one month apart. That delay puts them at risk for much of their first year (until that shot series is completed).  

Whooping cough generally is a mild yet annoying illness in adults. However, the disease is deadly in some young babies. Infants under 6 months of age have 20 times the risk of getting whooping cough compared with older children and adults, and — unfortunately for them — a high risk of suffering complications. Two-thirds of infants under 6 months who contract whooping cough end up in the hospital, and many suffer severe complications such as apnea (breath-holding), pneumonia, seizures, and brain damage. Some infants die. On July 17, a California infant tragically died from whooping cough, and a quick internet search will reveal many other similar stories.  Since 1990 almost everyone who died from whooping cough in the United States was under 3 months of age.

Fortunately, vaccines for influenza and whooping cough are available for pregnant women. These vaccines allow mothers to develop antibodies against the diseases that protect the mother against the infection and also pass to the baby across the placenta before birth. This means babies are born with high levels of antibodies that may last until they receive their own vaccines in the first months of life, and until their immune systems are better able to respond to the infection. Giving influenza and whooping cough vaccines during pregnancy has been shown to be safe and very effective in preventing infection in mothers and babies — much more effective than if the mother waits to get vaccines after the baby is born. And even if a baby is unlucky enough to get the flu or whooping cough, the illness is generally much milder.

Influenza vaccine should be given as soon as it is available, to make sure the pregnant woman is protected before the first cases of flu appear. Whooping cough vaccine should be given during the third trimester of pregnancy (between weeks 27 through 36), although it is safe to be given at any time. Giving it in the third trimester ensures antibodies are higher when the baby is born so the newborn is protected longer. Mothers who do not get these vaccines while pregnant should get them as soon as possible after birth (unless they have previously had the pertussis booster vaccine).

Equally important is that every person who comes in contact with babies (including fathers, grandparents, family members, and caretakers) is up to date on recommended vaccines. Getting the shots at least two weeks before they contact the baby is the best way to lessen the chance they will become sick and pass the illness on to the baby. 

Expectant moms should talk to their doctor about getting vaccines during pregnancy. While all pregnant women should get influenza and whooping cough vaccines during every pregnancy, some women may need additional vaccines if they are at higher risk of getting an infection or are traveling to certain areas. 

Pregnancy is a happy, exciting time for most women. Along with other important “do’s and don’ts” that moms-to-be follow, such as avoiding alcohol and smoking, taking special care around animals, and following a healthy diet, getting all recommended vaccines should be equally high on the list, so they can share their protection with their baby.  

Vaccines save lives and prevent disease, and vaccines during pregnancy can protect two individuals (mother and infant) with a single shot!

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