Pregnant women are susceptible individuals in whom flu can lead to serious complications like pneumonia and the associated high fever can lead to birth defects in the unborn child
By Dr Ritu Sethi
“There is no cure for love or flu, they both pass with time”
Influenza or seasonal ‘flu’ as it is commonly called is a viral illness that attacks the respiratory system: the lungs, nose and throat. Mostly a self-limiting condition, it can lead to serious complications in pregnancy, both for the mother and her unborn child. During pregnancy, the expecting mother undergoes many hormonal changes and getting an influenza (flu) vaccine is the first and most important step in protecting against flu.
Facts about flu vaccination, treatment and pregnancy
Influenza is more likely to cause severe illness in pregnant and postpartum women than in women who are not pregnant. Changes in the immune system during pregnancy make pregnant women more prone to severe illness from influenza.
Vaccination has been shown to reduce the risk of flu-associated acute respiratory infection in pregnant women by about one-half.
Getting a flu shot can reduce a pregnant woman’s risk of being hospitalised with flu by an average of 40 percent.
Pregnant women who get a flu shot are also helping to protect their babies from flu illness for the first several months after their birth, when they are too young to get vaccinated.
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How does the flu spread in expecting mothers?
‘Flu’ usually spreads by respiratory droplets by coughing, sneezing of an infected person or by touching contaminated surfaces which are in close proximity to an infected person. Thus knowing the mode of spread makes it easier for us to know the manner in which to prevent it.
Pregnant women are one such group of susceptible individuals in whom flu can lead to serious complications like pneumonia and the associated high fever can lead to birth defects in the unborn child. This is because pregnancy is a state of low immune status. The lowering of guard in the expecting mother is because it is trying to accept the ‘foreigner’ (the foetus) as its own and to prevent its rejection by its own cells. This results in lowered immunity which makes the body more susceptible to infectious diseases. The high grade fever in flu can be a sign of pneumonia and may even require hospitalisation with treatment with high-end antibiotics which again may harm the foetus. This may lead to preterm labour, premature rupture of the water bag around the foetus and premature delivery. The high-grade fever itself may even lead to birth defects in the foetus.
Another reason why pregnant women fall into the susceptible group is because the capacity of the lungs is decreased to accommodate the growing belly. Also the heart pumping blood for two individuals (mother and her baby) makes pregnancy a stressful condition, which can lead to vulnerability to infections.
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Prevention of flu
In order to prevent the complications happening from the seasonal flu, “vaccination” is recommended to all pregnant women. Due to the current changes in the new normal, expecting mothers should take this vaccination with the availability of home vaccination services available across hospitals. Frequent handwashing and avoiding close contact with persons who are sick or show any other symptoms related to flu should be avoided. Taking a flu vaccination is very safe during pregnancy and post-delivery. In the northern belt in India, the incidence of flu is more from July to October and protection from the vaccine is achieved in two weeks. The injectable (not the nasal) vaccine is completely safe in pregnancy, can be given in any trimester of pregnancy and has the advantage that immunity achieved by the antibodies produced is passed on to the unborn foetus and remains so after birth, hence protecting the newborn as the vaccine is not recommended for infants below 6 months of age.
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And the flu shot isn’t just for your own protection: Your baby-to-be benefits, too, even after you’ve given birth. Plenty of research shows that babies whose moms got the flu vaccine during pregnancy are less likely to catch the virus after they’re born, and they’re protected against the virus until they’re old enough to get their own shot, at six months.
For any concerns during pregnancy, remember to consult your medical practitioner.
(The writer is Senior Consultant Gynecologist, Cloudnine Group of Hospitals, Old Gurgaon)
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