Flu season: Provide protection for unborn

October 20, 2009

By Staff

Children born to women who received the flu vaccine in pregnancy have protection from this illness for the first six months of their life. By receiving both flu vaccines, you are providing your child with significant protection from these illnesses.

Another flu season is upon us, and this one promises to be one of the most watched in recent years. In addition to the normal seasonal flu virus, we expect to see a number of people infected with the H1N1 virus (formally known as swine flu). As with any strain of the flu, pregnant women are especially vulnerable. Fortunately, there are a number of steps you can take to minimize the effect of this illness.

All of us will need to practice appropriate personal hygiene etiquette this fall and winter. This includes covering our mouths when coughing and washing our hands. Flu virus is spread in respiratory droplets that become airborne with coughing. Covering your mouth with the crux of your arm during a cough will help to limit the spread of the virus. Hand washing, whether with soap and water or hand sanitizers, is one of the most effective ways to stay healthy.

The flu virus and other viruses can live on dry surfaces, like doorknobs and counters, for a number of hours, and we can pick up these viruses by touching these surfaces. These infections like to enter the body through areas on the face around the eyes, nose and mouth, so, it is good practice to avoid touching these parts of the face.

The most effective way to protect yourself from getting the flu, either seasonal or H1N1, is to get vaccinated. The seasonal flu vaccine is now available and all pregnant women should get this vaccine. The vaccine contains inactivated (killed) flu virus and cannot give you the flu.

Most people have mild reactions after receiving this vaccine, including muscle soreness at the site of injection. The seasonal flu vaccine has been shown to be safe in pregnancy and can be given at any gestational age. It is most effective if you receive the vaccine early in the flu season.

This year, pregnant women will also need to receive the H1N1 vaccine. This vaccine is now available and more doses are expected throughout the month. Pregnant women only need to receive a single dose, and studies show that the vaccine works well and is safe.

You should contact your health care provider to get the vaccine. If your provider does not have or will not carry this vaccine, you can contact the King County Public Health Department for more information (www.kingcounty.gov/health/H1N1). Pregnant women exposed to H1N1 flu have been infected at a higher rate than the general public, and they have had more severe illness. It is important for your health and the health of your baby that you get this vaccine now that it is available.

One tremendous benefit of getting these vaccines in pregnancy is that this will provide protection for your child once he or she is born. It has been shown that children born to women who received the flu vaccine in pregnancy have protection from this illness for the first six months of their life. This is important, because children under the age of 6 months cannot receive the flu vaccine. By receiving both flu vaccines, you are providing your child with significant protection from these illnesses.

Despite all of these efforts, we know that a number of pregnant women will still be infected by H1N1 influenza this season. If you have symptoms of the flu, a fever over 100 degrees with cough and/or sore throat, it is important that you contact your health care provider. Medications to treat influenza are available and have been shown to reduce the severity of illness in pregnant women. The medication is most effective if it is started within the first few days after your symptoms appear.

While all indications are that the H1N1 infection is milder than first feared, pregnant women are disproportionately affected by this virus. Unfortunately, there have been a number of deaths amongst pregnant women and other severe infections requiring significant hospitalizations. Do what you can to stay healthy and protect your baby this season. Practice good personal hygiene, get vaccinated and contact your provider early if you have flu-like symptoms.

Mark N. Simon: MD, MMM, FACOG, OB-GYN hospitalist. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.

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