Important: This is intended as general information only. It may not apply to your specific situation. It is not a substitute for medical advice. If you have a question or concern, please raise it with me at your next appointment or contact me sooner if it's urgent.
The Flu and Flu vaccination in pregnancy
Influenza, or ‘the flu’ is one of the more serious of the common infections women get in pregnancy.
Many people will tell you that they have the flu when what they really have is a nasty head cold. Infection with the flu causes fevers, muscle and joint aches, extreme lethargy, loss of appetite, headaches and respiratory symptoms. The flu spreads easily from person to person via respiratory droplets and on people’s hands (that is, from people breathing on you or touching you).
One of the reasons that the flu is so successful (from a virus’ point of view) is that it constantly mutates. This means that even if you had the flu last year, the virus you encounter this year may well have changed enough that you won’t have much in the way of immunity. You may have heard people refer to various strains of the flu such as H1N1 or H5N1 – this refers to the particular strain of flu that is circulating. Some are worse than others – H1N1 (swine flu) is not as serious an infection as H5N1 (bird flu). However, because the two strains ‘look’ different to you immune system, having had H1N1 last year wont necessarily protect you from another strain this year. Contrast this, for example, with Chicken Pox (Varicella Zoster Virus): because the virus does not change rapidly, once you have been infected or vaccinated, you are usually immune for life.
Most people who get the flu are pretty miserable for a week or two but make a full recovery. However, some people end up in intensive care units needing ventilation and, each year in Australia, approximately 2500 people die as a result of the flu. When we look closely at the people who need admission to hospital or who die from the flu, they tend to be:
- the very old
- the very young
- people with an underlying medical condition
- pregnant women
Because pregnant women are at increased risk of serious complications of the flu, it is recommended that they receive vaccination. There has been extensive research that shows that the vaccine safe in pregnancy. Some vaccinations are not recommended in pregnancy, such as those made from live viruses. However, the flu vaccine is made from killed virus so it is completely safe in pregnancy (also, to dispel a popular myth, it cannot possibly give you the flu).
The flu vaccine works pretty well, but no vaccine is perfect. We’re lucky in Australia because our flu season follows the northern hemisphere’s flu season. Therefore, by the time the flu gets to us, we usually know which strain is causing most of the problems and enough time has elapsed for a vaccine against that strain to be developed.
You may come across people who tell you that they got the flu even though they were vaccinated, or perhaps you’ve had that experience yourself. This can happen if that person was exposed to a strain of the flu that was not covered in that year’s vaccination or if they were already infected at the time the vaccine was given. We haven’t yet developed a vaccine (or for that matter, any other treatment) for anything that is effective in 100% of people who receive it. The flu vaccination is considered to be 80-90% effective, which is pretty good. Of course, the person who told you that they got the flu despite vaccination may just have had a bad cold…
You may have noticed that one of the other groups of people most at risk from the flu is the very young, which of course includes your new born baby. If you develop antibodies against the flu (which is what happens when you get vaccinated), these antibodies will cross the placenta and be present in breast milk and thereby provide some protection to your baby. Also, if you have been vaccinated, there will be one less person in the baby’s immediate environment that could potentially infect him or her. Obviously, if a family member or friend is suspected of having the flu, they should stay away from your baby until they have recovered.
Obviously, it’s up to you to decide whether you want to get the flu vaccination but both the health department and I recommend it if you are pregnant or intend to become pregnant. It can protect you and your baby. Each year, that year’s flu vaccination is usually available from late March/early April and you can get it from your GP.