(NEW YORK) — This flu season, the World Health Organization says pregnant women should be given top priority for flu vaccinations, putting them above the elderly, children and people with chronic health conditions.
Pregnant women are considered especially vulnerable to the flu because their immune systems are slightly depressed to accommodate the growing fetus, doctors say. The mother’s body does this so her immune won’t attack the unborn baby, which includes foreign DNA.
“They’re not more likely to get it, but if they get it, they’re more likely to have severe morbidity or actually die from it,” said Dr. Jon Abramson, a pediatrician at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in North Carolina.
When the immune system is down, the mother’s body can’t fight the flu off as easily, Abramson said. It can then escalate and result in pneumonia and other health problems. Even if the flu doesn’t result in hospitalization, the baby is more likely to have a low birth weight or be born premature, especially if the mother gets the flu in the third trimester.
Although doctors have recommended the flu vaccine to pregnant women for decades, the 2009 pandemic got people’s attention. According to a WHO report, pregnant women in New York City were 7.2 times more likely to be hospitalized for influenza than non-pregnant women during the 2009 swine flu pandemic.
Lori Wolfe, who directs the Texas Teratogen Information Service Pregnancy Risk Line, said more women call her because they are afraid of getting the flu shot, not the flu. Since 2009, Wolfe and her colleagues have made it a practice to always recommend the flu shot to callers.
“When women are pregnant, there’s some concern about anything entering their system. The thought of having to get a vaccination alone is scary to a lot of them,” Wolfe said, adding that they usually understand why it’s important to get one after the teratologist explains flu risks to them.
Abramson said there’s no way to get the flu from a flu shot (not the nasal spray) because the virus inside the shot is dead. Even once the baby is born, the mother’s flu antibodies are passed to the baby through the placenta and protect him or her for up to six months. By then, the baby can get a flu shot, too.
Wolfe said a woman can get a flu vaccine at any time during her pregnancy. Other than the risk of miscarriage or premature birth if the mother is severely sick, a fever above 102 degrees presents the biggest developmental hazards to the fetus.
A Danish study published earlier this month also found a correlation between the flu during pregnancy and autism, reinforcing experts recommendations that all pregnant women should be vaccinated.
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio