HALIFAX – Pregnant women who get the flu shot are less likely to give birth to a premature baby or a baby with a low birth weight, according to a new study in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.
The study, which examined the data of 12,223 pregnant women in Nova Scotia between Nov. 1, 2010 and March 31, 2012, found only 16 per cent received the influenza vaccine.
However, the women who did get the flu shot were 25 per cent less likely to deliver a baby prematurely or with a low birth weight, said lead author Alexandra Legge, who is a fourth year medical student at Dalhousie University.
“These are significant findings because those outcomes, prematurity and low birth weight, can have significant adverse effects later in life,” Legge said.
Legge cites short term consequences like increased risk of infant mortality as well as long term consequences such as respiratory illness and long term neurodevelopmental outcomes.
The lead author said the low vaccination rate, which she called disappointing, could be blamed on concerns about vaccine safety or lack of knowledge about the dangers of influenza.
However, Legge said the benefits, especially to the baby, are tremendous.
“The vaccination may be exerting a protective effect on the fetus by avoiding infection, thereby avoiding the associated systemic inflammatory response that’s thought to contribute to premature labour,” she said.
Concerns for her baby are what led new mom Heather Fegan, 31, to get the flu shot last winter.
Fegan gave birth to baby Anna last July. She said the decision to get vaccinated was an easy one.
“I know getting the flu can be dangerous for pregnant women and their babies,” she said.
“I wanted to do what I could to protect myself and my baby.”
Anna, now five months old, was born healthy and at full term.
“I think if I hadn’t gotten the flu shot and I had gotten the flu, things could have gone quite differently,” Fegan said.
The new mom said an important factor for her to get the flu shot was a recommendation by her doctor, which the CMAJ study said has shown to be a key factor in increasing vaccination rates.
Dr. Joanne Langley, a vaccine researcher at the Canadian Centre for Vaccinology, said healthcare providers, as well as the public, need to recognize how important the influenza vaccine is, particularly for pregnant women.
Langley adds that getting the flu shot should also become normal protocol for those who are pregnant.
The province of Nova Scotia recommends all pregnant women get vaccinated for influenza.
It offers the vaccinations free of charge.