A new study released Wednesday by the New England Journal of Medicine confirms that it’s safe for pregnant women to get a flu shot. The news comes during a moderate to severe flu season that has spread across 90 percent of the nation, with deaths reaching epidemic levels, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
For pregnant women, the study provides reassurance after research found no evidence that the flu vaccine increases the mother’s risk of losing a fetus – and may even prevent some fetal deaths by preventing the flu in pregnant women, as the research also showed that getting the flu while pregnant increases the risk of fetal death.
National health officials began recommending flu shots for pregnant women over 50 years ago after a higher rate of pregnant women died during a flu pandemic in the late 1950s.
However, this latest study out yesterday is perhaps the largest look at the safety and value of flu vaccination during pregnancy, according to researchers.
"This is the kind of information we need to provide our patients when discussing that flu vaccine is important for everyone, particularly for pregnant women," said researcher Dr. Geeta Swamy, of Duke University Medical Center.
The study was released yesterday while the United States is in the midst of an early and more severe than usual flu season, prompting a U.S. obstetricians group to remind members that it's not too late for their pregnant patients to get vaccinated.
Led by the Norwegian Institute of Public Health, the researchers kept track of pregnancies in Norway in 2009 and 2010, during an international epidemic of a new swine flu strain.
Prior to 2009, flu shots were not routinely recommended for pregnant women in Norway. During the swine flu epidemic, however, pregnant women were advised to get vaccinations in their second or third trimester.
The Norwegian study focused on more than 113,000 pregnancies, of which 492 ended in fetal death, causing researchers to determine that the risk of fetal death was nearly twice as high for pregnant women who weren't vaccinated as it was for those who were.
In the wake of the 2009 swine flu pandemic, flu vaccination rates for pregnant women in the U.S. increased from less than 15 percent to approximately 50 percent. However, health officials say those rates need to be higher to protect newborns too, as they can’t be vaccinated until 6 months, although studies indicate that they pick up some protection if their mothers got an annual flu shot.
While most experts agree that pregnant women should be careful about taking certain medications and vaccines that can harm the fetus, Dr. Denise Jamieson of the CDC says this study should ease any worries about the flu shot.
"The vaccine is safe," she said.