Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is recommending that everyone should receive the influenza vaccine this unusually bad flu season, many may avoid one for a variety of reasons. Pregnant women may wish to avoid the vaccination because they are fearful that it may harm their developing fetus or because they are young in good health. However, the consequences of coming down with the flu far outweigh the risk of an adverse reaction to the vaccine.
This flu season is particularly severe, resulting in a number of hospitalizations as well as 18 pediatric deaths; thus, pregnant women must be made aware of the consequences of this potentially dangerous virus. The CDC encourages all expectant mothers must be encouraged to get a flu shot; if they notice flu-like symptoms, they need to seek medical help immediately. The mortality and complications of the flu in pregnancy are huge. In addition, these complications are not only significant to the mother but also can affect the developing fetus by causing premature labor, premature delivery and even death.
Four reasons pregnant women should be vaccinated against influenza:
1. Pregnant women have more difficulty in warding off an infections, both viral and bacterial. This is because the immune system often is underperforming due to the hormonal changes in pregnancy, which can have effects similar to those seen in individuals who are taking long-term steroid medications. When a pregnant woman develops a bacterial or viral infection, the chances that it will overpower the body’s ability to combat the infection are significantly higher than it would be if she were not pregnant.
2. Progesterone levels are high in pregnancy. One of the effects of progesterone in pregnancy is that it creates capillary engorgement and swelling of the lining of the nose and oral pharynx. This predisposes a pregnant women to contract viruses and infuse them quickly into circulation.
3. The respiratory system of a pregnant woman is impacted. There is an upward displacement of the diaphragm, which grows over time as the pregnant abdomen enlarges; this results in a decrease in total lung capacity. The expiratory reserve volume and the residual volume of the lungs are decreased by 20%; thus, a woman takes in less air with every breath. An influenza infection increases mucus secretions; coupled with the decreased air exchange can result in difficulty breathing.
4. The need for oxygen is much greater in pregnant women than non-pregnant women. The reason there is an increased oxygen consumption is because she is literally breathing for two. Ultimately, the flu can infect a pregnant woman’s lungs, not only with the flu virus, but with a secondary infection, such as bacterial pneumonia that decreases oxygen delivery to the mother and fetus, which could even lead to death.