With Autumn upon us, it’s time to prepare ourselves for the upcoming flu season. Soon you’ll see public health messages encouraging you to get the flu shot to protect yourself and those around you from an infection that can knock you around for a several days, with potentially serious consequences for the more vulnerable in our community.
If I’m pregnant, is it safe and recommended to have the flu vaccine?
Yes. In fact, because pregnant women are considered a ‘high-risk’ group when it comes to the flu, health authorities recommend that all pregnant women should have the flu shot. And to make sure the vaccine is accessible, the flu shot is free for all pregnant women under the National Immunisation Program.
The flu can be severe and cause serious complications in pregnant women and their unborn babies, especially when infection occurs in the second and third trimesters. Sadly, if a pregnant woman is infected with the flu, her risk of miscarriage, premature birth or stillbirth is increased, as is her risk of severe illness or death.
When should I get the flu shot?
It is safe for you to have the flu shot at any time during your pregnancy and your doctor will advise you when the best time is for you.
Because the virus that causes the flu mutates rapidly, a new flu vaccine is developed every year. In Australia, the new vaccine is released in April, so people can develop immunity to this year’s strain before the flu season sets in.
How does the flu vaccine work?
If you’ve never had the flu shot before, it is a very quick process where a nurse or doctor administers the vaccine via injection.
The vaccine itself works like all other vaccinations. Put simply, it takes advantage of your body’s natural immune system, using it to build resistance to the virus without you coming into contact with the virus itself. That way, if you are exposed to the flu, your body recognises the virus and knows how to fight it – which we call being immunised.
Because the virus that causes the flu changes rapidly, immunisation for the flu doesn’t cover you from one year to the next, so you need to have a flu shot for each pregnancy.
What other vaccines should I have while I’m pregnant?
Pregnant women should also have the whooping cough (pertussis) vaccine during the third trimester of pregnancy. The ideal timing is between weeks 28 and 32 of pregnancy, but it can be given up until the baby is born.
Immunisation against whooping cough is very important because it can cause pneumonia, seizures, brain disease and, in the worst cases, death of the baby. Newborn babies can’t be vaccinated for whooping cough until they are 6 weeks old, so they are vulnerable to infection during that time. However, if the mum is immunised near the end of pregnancy, it provides some level of immunisation for the baby to protect them during their first few weeks of life.
In Victoria, the whooping cough vaccine is free for:
- Pregnant women from week 28 of pregnancy onwards
- Partners of pregnant women if they have not received a whooping cough booster (follow-up shot) in the last 10 years
- Parents or guardians of babies born on or after 1 June 2015, if the baby is 6 months of age or younger and they have not received a whooping cough booster in the last 10 years.
A booster shot for whooping cough is needed each time you are pregnant.
Are these vaccines safe for my baby?
The flu and whooping cough vaccines will not harm an unborn baby and have been given to millions of pregnant women around the world. A recent study of over 400,000 babies reinforced that the flu and whooping cough vaccines are safe, showing that babies whose mums had the vaccinations while they were pregnant were no more likely to die or be hospitalised than babies whose mums did not.
What about other infectious diseases?
There are other key vaccines that will protect you and your baby against serious infectious diseases, but for safety reasons these are not given to pregnant women. As these are standard vaccinations, you are likely to be immunised for most if not all already.
If you are planning a pregnancy, speak to your doctor before you become pregnant to ensure you are immunised for measles, mumps and rubella, chickenpox, pneumococcal disease and any necessary travel vaccinations you may need during your pregnancy. Find out more about how to prepare for pregnancy here.
I need vaccinations – what next?
My patients are automatically offered flu and whooping cough vaccinations as part of their pregnancy care. These are stocked at my main consulting suite at Epworth Freemasons. The flu vaccine will be given as it becomes available during the flu season and the whooping cough vaccine will be given in the third trimester of pregnancy. Unfortunately, partners will need to visit their GP to receive these immunisations.
Otherwise, if you are already pregnant and require the flu and/or whooping cough vaccines, make an appointment with your GP.
If you are planning a pregnancy, book a consultation with me to make sure your vaccinations are up to date and to get other personalised advice on preconception care. Call (03) 9418 8299 to make an appointment or book online.
And if you have any questions about which vaccinations you need before and during pregnancy, please don’t hesitate to call my rooms on call (03) 9418 8299.