INFLUENZA activity in Northern Ireland has increased in recent weeks.
While this increase is expected at this time of year, it reinforces the need for people who are ‘at risk’ to get the vaccine as soon as possible, and this is particularly important for pregnant women.
Women can find they are bombarded with advice during their pregnancy and face making tough choices about what is best for them and their baby. However, one Northern Ireland mum-to-be said her decision to get the flu vaccine this year required no debating at all.
“This is my third pregnancy and I have had the flu vaccine the last two times, so I was in no doubt that I had to get vaccinated against the flu again this time as I fall into an at risk group, despite being otherwise in excellent health,” explained Rebecca McGerrigan.
“I contacted my GP surgery after seeing the advice from the Public Health Agency as I knew that it would take 10–14 days for the vaccination to protect me and the baby and I didn’t want to take any chances during flu season.”
All pregnant women are being advised by the Public Health Agency (PHA) to get the flu vaccine, no matter what stage of their pregnancy, as they are more likely to develop serious complications as a result of flu compared with women who are not pregnant.
Pregnant women who get flu are more likely to have a premature birth or even a stillbirth. Their babies are also more at risk after being born. The flu vaccine protects against these risks and protects the baby against flu for the first few months of life.
These were the stark facts that grabbed Rebecca’s attention: “Now I’ve had the flu vaccine I can go into the flu season confident that I’ve done everything in my power to protect me and my baby. If I hadn’t had my vaccine I would really be concerned at this stage in the winter season. At least now I have one less thing to worry about.
“And it’s great news that by having the flu vaccine I have also helped lower the chances of my baby being admitted to hospital with flu for up to six months after he or she is born as I will be passing on the antibodies to my unborn child.”
Initial concerns about having a vaccine during her pregnancy were quickly eliminated after Rebecca spoke to her midwife Anne Kee. Anne, a Caseload Midwife at the Royal Jubilee Maternity Hospital said: “A lot of the mums-to-be are unsure about getting the flu vaccine, as ordinarily throughout their pregnancy they are told not to take any medication other than paracetemol and not to eat certain foods. I have also heard concerns from mums about getting the flu from the vaccine, as mums-to-be don’t want to risk harming their baby.
“But as midwives we advise them that they are at higher risk of developing complications if they catch the flu when pregnant. We refer to the advice contained in the PHA leaflet and once they understand the benefits of the flu vaccine and that it is safe for mum and baby, they are happy to get the vaccine.”
Dr Richard Smithson, Consultant in Health Protection, PHA, said: “While flu is a mild illness for most people, it can be very serious for those in ‘at risk’ groups. Experience in the UK and other countries suggests that pregnant women are more likely to develop serious complications as a result of flu compared with women who are not pregnant.
“These complications include pneumonia and lung problems and pregnant women are many times more likely to become so ill they need to be admitted to hospital. Babies born to mothers vaccinated during pregnancy are 45–48% less likely to be hospitalised with flu in the six months after birth.
“It is best to be vaccinated as soon as possible so you and your baby are protected. If you become pregnant later in the winter you should get the vaccine as soon as you know you are pregnant. I would advise any pregnant woman who is feeling anxious about getting the flu vaccine to talk to their midwife or GP for advice
“We have had a very good response from pregnant women already, with nearly 60% having already had the vaccine, which is very encouraging. However, I would urge those women who have not yet had the vaccine and those who have just found out they are pregnant to arrange to get it as soon as possible by contacting their GP’s surgery.”
Rebecca added: “I am looking forward to the arrival of my baby in early February and now that I have had the flu vaccine I don’t need to worry about catching the flu.
“I would encourage other pregnant women to get the flu vaccine, if they have not already done so, as it only takes a minute, it is painless and most importantly it will give you peace of mind during your pregnancy.”
For more information on seasonal flu go to www.fluawareni.info and follow us on Facebook and Twitter.