FRIDAY, Sept. 17, 2010 (HealthDay News) -- As flu season approaches, a coalition of the nation's largest public health organizations are highlighting the need for pregnant women to protect themselves and their babies by getting immunized.
"Based on expert medical opinion, we urge all pregnant women, and women who expect to become pregnant, to get their influenza immunization because the flu poses a serious risk of illness and death during pregnancy," Dr. Jennifer L. Howse, president of the March of Dimes, said in a news release from the organization.
"The flu vaccine has been shown to be safe and effective," she noted. "As an added bonus, during pregnancy, mothers pass on their immunity, protecting babies until they are old enough to receive their own vaccinations."
On a cautionary note, however, experts point out that pregnant women should be sure to get the influenza shot, rather than the nasal spray vaccine option. The shot is made with a killed version of the virus, whereas the spray contains a weakened, but live, virus.
That said, the current education campaign highlights the fact that pregnancy increases the risk for sometimes fatal complications associated with the flu virus, including bacterial pneumonia and dehydration. Immune system changes that accompany pregnancy also increase the risk that a bout with the flu will require hospitalization, researchers have found.
Citing research presented in the April issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, the March of Dimes news release noted that in the United States, pregnant women constituted 5 percent of all H1N1 fatalities in 2009 despite the fact that they made up just 1 percent of the American population.
Therefore, beyond getting vaccinated, pregnant women are advised to take additional precautions. Frequent hand washing, the use of hand sanitizers, and limiting exposure to children and sick people are some of the ways pregnant women can limit their flu risk.
People in close contact with pregnant women and/or young children should also be vaccinated, experts advise. And if and when a pregnant woman develops flu-like symptoms, medical attention should be sought immediately.
In its national effort to raise awareness of such pregnancy-specific flu risks, the March of Dimes is joined by the American Academy of Family Physicians, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American College of Nurse-Midwives, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the American Medical Association, the American Nurses Association, the American Pharmacists Association, the Association of Women's Health, Obstetric and Neonatal Nurses, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
For his part, Dr. Pascal James Imperato, dean and distinguished service professor of the School of Public Health at the State University of New York Downstate Medical Center in New York City, praises the effort to draw attention to the particular threat the flu virus poses in pregnant women.
"We discovered in the last influenza season that many pregnant women were not aware of this need," he noted. "And also their obstetricians were not aware. And part of the reason is that pregnant women were not traditionally listed among the high-risk groups, such as people 65 and older, and individuals with any chronic debilitating health complication requiring ongoing health care," Imperato explained.
"Health care providers and those providing critical services -- such as firefighters and police -- were later added to the list, but it's only in the last couple of years that we added pregnant women," Imperato noted. "Because of the physiological changes that take place in their bodies that make [pregnant women] more vulnerable . . . it's very critical that they get immunized."
On another note, this year, adults seeking immunization will need just one flu shot, as opposed to the two that the CDC recommended last season.
The CDC pointed out that last year's concern over the H1N1 virus necessitated one shot for that flu as well as a second shot targeting the seasonal flu virus. This year, however, a single vaccine has been developed to protect against three types of flu: the H3N2 virus, the influenza B virus and the 2009 H1N1 virus.
For more on the flu shot, visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.