The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) and the Royal College of Midwives (RCM) have joined forces to encourage more pregnant women to come forward for the free flu vaccine this winter.
Last winter just four in 10 pregnant women accepted the offer of flu vaccination, despite figures* showing that 36 pregnant women died from certain strains of flu in the UK and Ireland between 2009-12, accounting for 1 in 11 of all maternal deaths during this period.
More than half of these deaths were thought to be preventable because they occurred after the vaccine became available free-of-charge to pregnant women, but none of these women were known to be vaccinated.
Seasonal flu is an unpredictable virus. For most healthy people, flu is an unpleasant but usually self-limiting disease with recovery generally within a week. Pregnant women, older people, the very young and those with a pre-existing health condition are at risk from the more serious effects of flu.
Dr Patrick O’Brien, spokesperson for the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) said:
“Any viral infection, including seasonal flu, can cause harm to a mother and baby during pregnancy. It can also be serious for newborn babies if they catch the infection from their mothers.
“Some women may be concerned that getting vaccinated during pregnancy might harm their baby but we want to reassure them that flu vaccination is safe, effective and can be given at any stage of pregnancy. Having the flu vaccine will also protect your baby during the first few months after birth. We strongly encourage pregnant women who haven’t had the vaccine yet, to contact their GP or midwife today.”
Louise Silverton, Director for Midwifery at the Royal College of Midwives (RCM) said:
“If caught, flu can be very, very serious for the mother and baby. The vaccine is effective for many people and it is certainly more effective than not having the vaccine. We strongly recommend that pregnant women have the flu vaccination to protect themselves and their baby from the effects of flu. We also urge midwives and other health professionals to have the vaccination to protect themselves, their family and the people they care for from the infection also.
“If women have any concerns about the vaccine, we advise them to speak to their midwife or doctor to discuss the issue.”
Common misconceptions about flu in pregnancy
Myth #1: Having the vaccine will harm my baby
The flu vaccine has a good safety record and has no associated risk of complications for either the mother or baby, in fact, it will protect both of you. Research has shown that pregnant women have a higher chance of developing complications if they get flu. One of the most common complications of flu is bronchitis, which can develop into pneumonia. Other complications can include ear infection, sepsis, heart problems, meningitis and encephalitis.
Myth #2: I’m too early/late in my pregnancy to get the vaccine
Studies have shown that the flu vaccine is safe during any stage of pregnancy, from the first few weeks up to your expected due date. The risk of flu increases in the later stages of pregnancy and it’s never too late to get vaccinated. The best time to have a flu vaccine is from the beginning of October to November, but don't worry if you've missed it, you can have the vaccine at any time during the flu season.
Myth #3: Flu isn’t that serious, I’ll just deal with it
Flu is a highly infectious disease that spreads through the coughs and sneezes of people who are carrying the virus. The symptoms, which come on quickly, include fever, aches and pains in the joints and muscles, and extreme tiredness. Flu is not like having a bad cold – it can be much worse. Pregnant women are at a higher risk of complications from flu, such as pneumonia. In very rare cases, getting flu during pregnancy can also lead to an increased risk of miscarriage, stillbirth, premature birth or having a low weight baby.
Myth #4: The flu vaccine doesn’t work, so why bother?
Flu vaccination is the best protection we have against an unpredictable virus which can cause severe illness and deaths each year among at-risk groups, including pregnant women. In recent years, the flu vaccine has been around 50% effective (ranging from 25 to 70%), and there has generally been a good match between the strains of flu in the vaccine and those that subsequently circulate.
Myth #5: The flu vaccine will give me flu
The flu vaccine contains inactivated, or killed, strains of the flu virus and it cannot give you flu.
Myth #6: I had the flu vaccine last year, I don’t need it again
The viruses that cause flu change every year. This means that the flu (and the vaccine) this year may be different from last year. Even if you had the flu vaccine last year, if you are pregnant, you need to have it again this year.
Myth #7 I haven’t received an invitation so I don’t think I need the vaccine
Every pregnant woman in the UK is entitled to, and should have, a free flu vaccine. In some areas, midwives can give a flu vaccine at the antenatal clinic, while in others you will need an appointment at your GP practice (they may send you a letter). Some pharmacies also offer free flu vaccines. If you haven’t received your flu vaccine yet, call your midwife or GP and make an appointment today.
*MBRRACE-UK Maternal, Newborn and Infant Clinical Outcome Review Programme. Saving Lives, Improving Mothers’ Care. December 2014 (https://www.npeu.ox.ac.uk/mbrrace-uk)
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The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists is a medical charity that champions the provision of high quality women’s healthcare in the UK and beyond. It is dedicated to encouraging the study and advancing the science and practice of obstetrics and gynaecology. It does this through postgraduate medical education and training and the publication of clinical guidelines and reports on aspects of the specialty and service provision.