This guest post was written by the SciMoms, a science communication project that aims to communicate evidence-based advice to parents and caregivers. Each of the SciMoms is an accomplished science communicator in her own right, and they have joined forces to communicate about a wide range of topics.
There’s a lot to worry about when you’re pregnant. Are you getting the right nutrition? Can you have a single glass of wine? Could the baby name you love turn out to have some silly-sounding nickname you never even considered? While many new parents spend their pregnancy worrying about what they should avoid, it’s just as important to pay attention to what you need, and that includes vaccines that can protect both you and your baby. Just like doctors recommend prenatal vitamins during (and before) pregnancy to prevent birth defects, they also recommend two important vaccines to protect from vaccine-preventable illness: the Tdap and flu shots. We know going to the doctor’s is difficult right now during a global pandemic, but now more than ever, it’s also especially important to stay up to date on your shots.
The Impact of Flu and Pertussis
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that the flu has caused between 9.3 million and 45 million illnesses per year since 2010, including between 140,000 and 810,000 hospitalizations and 12,000 and 61,000 deaths. But the virus can be especially severe for pregnant women. Pregnant women who get the flu are more likely to develop a serious complication that requires hospitalization, including premature labor and preterm birth.
Doctors also recommend that pregnant women get the Tdap vaccine, but this vaccine is important because it helps protect our infants from developing pertussis (also commonly known as whooping cough). Whooping cough is a severe respiratory disease that has the highest risk of complications in young children, leading to pneumonia, convulsions, brain damage or even death. In fact, half of the infants who get the disease end up needing hospitalization.
Vaccines Can Protect You and Your Baby
The Tdap vaccine is given to pregnant moms in the third trimester of each pregnancy to ensure that the baby has the necessary antibodies to protect them from whooping cough at birth. Infants don’t receive the vaccine until two months of age, so they rely on their mother’s immunity for protection against whooping cough during these early months. By getting a Tdap vaccine in your third trimester (preferably early in this time frame), you develop high levels of antibodies, which are then passed to your baby.
Keep in mind that the vaccine’s effect won’t last forever. When we don’t encounter a virus or bacteria that we’ve developed antibodies against, our bodies eventually decrease the amount of antibodies that we produce against the germ. That’s why it’s important that pregnant moms get a vaccine for Tdap with each pregnancy.
For pregnant women, the best protection against the flu is the vaccine, which can be administered in any trimester. A 2018 study showed that getting the flu vaccine can reduce a pregnant woman’s risk of being hospitalized with the flu by an average of 40 percent. For this particular vaccine, the most important timing is the flu season itself since it’s better to get the shot before that gets going. But if you receive the vaccine in the third trimester, the shot will also provide antibodies against the flu for your unborn baby.
Both the Tdap and flu vaccines are safe for pregnant women. The flu vaccine is also closely monitored by the CDC, with numerous studies showing this vaccine to also be safe and effective for pregnant women.
These particular vaccines aren’t live nor do they contain any live viruses. They’re made by inactivating or killing the germ during the process of making the shot, so there’s no risk of the virus shedding.
You’ll want to tell your doctor if you have any allergies or have had any previous allergic reaction or any severe reaction to a vaccine in the past. The most common reaction, however, if there is one, is mild swelling or redness where the shot was administered.
Consult Your Doctor for Specific Recommendations— Ideally, Before You Get Pregnant
Some vaccines are actually contraindicated or not recommended during pregnancy, including the MMR vaccine, a live vaccine that protects against measles, mumps, and rubella. Ideally, you want to talk to your doctor before you get pregnant so you can make sure that you’re up to date on the vaccinations you won’t be able to get once you’re expecting.
Measles is particularly dangerous during pregnancy, and it is important to know whether you have immunity against the disease before getting pregnant. If you aren’t sure or if you received only one dose of the vaccine (i.e., born before the 90s), ask your doctor to do a quick blood test to see if you have the antibodies against measles.
SciMoms Co-founder Layla Katiraee was given one dose of the vaccine, before Canada adopted a two-dose vaccination recommendation in the 90s after finding that a single dose of the vaccine left some people without immunity. (See the MMR recommendations for pregnant women in the U.S.). She had a blood test done and found that she was not immune to measles and got an MMR shot. U.S. medical institutions, including the CDC, recommend waiting a few weeks after you’ve received the MMR shot before trying to get pregnant.
There are other vaccines that can be given to moms to protect them and their babies. Some of these vaccines aren’t widely provided typically, however. So, if you have hepatitis, or you might be traveling, be sure to talk to your doctor to find out what, if any, vaccines are appropriate for your circumstances. The CDC has a handy table where the options are summarized.
Celebrate Mother’s Day by Keeping Moms Safe!
Despite the clear benefits of the Tdap and flu vaccines for pregnant women, many do not get their necessary immunizations. Only 55% of pregnant women got the Tdap vaccine in 2019. Similarly, only about half of pregnant women got their flu shot, according to the CDC.
It’s easy to keep putting off your own health needs, even if you know how important vaccines are. Each year, SciMoms Co-founder Jenny Splitter finds herself always making sure everyone else in the family is vaccinated well before the season is underway but then struggling to make time for her own appointment. It’s tough to juggle the million things that we all seem to be constantly juggling but it’s important to get those necessary shots anyway.
Likewise, those who are caregivers to young children or are in close contact with pregnant women should also remember to keep up to date with their vaccines in order to keep the moms and infants in their lives safe. This includes professional caregivers, as well as grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. It takes a village to help raise a child, and vaccinations are one of the best public health measures in our hands to protect the villagers.
Knowing how important vaccines are and how they can protect you and your child can lift a burden of anxiety off of your shoulders. Knowing that you have done all you can to protect your child from a list of potentially harmful diseases is just one less thing to worry about.
Vaccinate Your Family:
Mayo Clinic: Whooping Cough (Pertussis)
This guest post was written by the SciMoms, a science communication project that aims to communicate evidence-based advice to parents and caregivers. Each of the SciMoms is an accomplished science communicator in her own…
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