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Published on September 30, 2016

The Importance of Flu Shots for Pregnant Women and Their Babies

Getting a flu shot is a good idea for everyone, but it’s especially important for pregnant women and their unborn babies. It provides an added measure of protection and insurance at a time when both mother and newborn are at an increased risk for severe complications from the flu.

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The preventive effects of the flu vaccine are undeniable. A recent study showed that infants whose mothers got the flu shot were 70 percent less likely to get the flu and 81 percent less likely to be hospitalized for it within the first six months.

Building a Protective Bubble Around the Newborn

When a pregnant woman is vaccinated against the flu, her child benefits indirectly. Infants cannot be vaccinated until after they are six months old, since their immune systems are simply not capable of responding to the influenza antigen – the process that creates immunity.

“The best strategy for newborns,” advises Steven Shapiro, DO, chair of the Pediatrics Department at Jefferson Health - Abington, “is to create a barrier around the baby so he or she does not become exposed to the flu virus.” Since the flu virus can have severe complications in very young children, Dr. Shapiro recommends that parents, caregivers, and extended family receive a flu shot so they are all protected. This is the best way to ensure that the baby is not exposed.

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Building this protective bubble around the newborn is critical, since infants respond much differently – and potentially more severely – to influenza infections than children and adults do.

Flu Infections Are Harder on Newborns

“Influenza among children looks like a bad cold. Kids get sick, they have high fevers, and they feel lousy,” says Dr. Shapiro. “However, generally speaking, their immune systems are able to respond and they’ll get better within a week or so.”

In the case of an infant, they typically have no exposure to organisms like the influenza virus, and their bodies typically are not equipped to fight respiratory diseases well. “Newborns become very ill, very quickly,” commented Dr. Shapiro. “The flu presents in many different ways and it’s often made very difficult and complicated by the young age of the patient.”

The flu virus invades the lungs and increases secretions in the space around the alveoli, tiny sacs that are involved in the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide. The flu disrupts this normal process. Adults and older children may take deeper breaths, breathe harder, or cough to clear their throats when they are ill. Infants cannot do this. Their only response is to breathe faster.

“Our job as pediatricians treating infants infected by the flu is to maintain satisfactory oxygen levels in the body with the least amount of intervention,” says Dr. Shapiro. “Unfortunately a lot of newborns will end up needing the assistance of a ventilator and medications like bronchodilators to help them. Anything we can do to reduce the concern for the flu is in everyone’s best interest – and encouraging pregnant women to get the flu vaccine is an important component of our strategy.”

It’s been shown that if an infant or child does contract influenza A or B even after being exposed to the flu vaccine, the infection won’t be as serious.

Pregnant Mothers Need the Extra Protection Too

Pregnancy is a time period when a woman’s immune system is known to be compromised. Pregnant women are at higher risk for complications of influenza if they become exposed and infected.

“Once your immune system returns to normal after pregnancy, you will experience normal responses when you’re exposed to infections like the flu,” says Dr. Shapiro. “Until then, it’s especially important – both for you and your infant – to get vaccinated.”

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