It’s unclear whether it’s the high fever associated with influenza, or the disease itself that contributes to the increased risk of birth defects, experts say. But reducing the risk of birth defects is one reason why all pregnant women and those thinking of having a baby should get an annual flu shot.
Even in the US, only half of all pregnant women get a flu shot each season, leaving thousands of moms-to-be and their babies at increased risk of serious illness.
“The annual flu shot should be a priority in health care this time of year,” says Dr. McCabe. “Health care providers should offer all their female patients of childbearing age a flu shot — and if they don’t offer it, then women should ask for it.”
Pregnant women are in greater need of a flu shot because the normal changes to their immune system, heart and lungs put them at increased risk of the harmful effects of flu infection. Also, babies born to women who got their flu shots while pregnant are protected from serious illness from influenza during their first six months of life. Immunized women also have a lower risk of flu-related hospitalizations for chronic asthma, heart conditions, diabetes, a weakened immune system, and other health-related problems.
Studies involving thousands of pregnant women who received the seasonal flu vaccine have shown that immunized women do not have a higher risk of preterm babies or babies with birth defects than unimmunized women. Researchers also found that immunized women are less likely to experience a stillbirth.
The US Centers for Disease Control & Prevention recommends that everyone six months of age or older, including pregnant women, be vaccinated annually against the influenza virus.
In addition to getting their annual flu shots, pregnant women can lower their risks of catching the flu by limiting contact with others who are sick; not touching the eyes, nose and mouth; washing hands with soap and water before touching others; using hand sanitizers; using hot, soapy water or a dishwasher to wash the dishes and utensils; and not sharing dishes, glasses, utensils, or toothbrushes. Also, those who live with pregnant women, or who are in close contact with them, should also get a flu shot each year.
Pregnant women who develop flu symptoms, such as sudden onset fever, muscle aches, and cough should contact their health care providers as soon as possible to discuss beginning an anti-viral treatment.
The March of Dimes is the leading nonprofit organization for pregnancy and baby health.