Pregnant Women Unaware, Misinformed About Flu Shots
Despite national health experts' long-standing recommendation that women receive a flu shot while pregnant, three-quarters of women responding to a new national survey are unaware or unsure of these recommendations, and only 20 percent of those who are currently pregnant plan to get a flu shot this influenza season. Results from the survey of pregnant women and new mothers, conducted on behalf of the National Women's Health Resource Center (NWHRC) by Harris Interactive showed that a significant proportion of women were unaware of higher health risks associated with influenza during pregnancy. Some women even question whether the flu shot itself can pose a health risk to themselves or their unborn baby.
These findings stand in stark contrast to scientific evidence demonstrating the protective benefits of influenza vaccination to pregnant women and to the four million babies born in the United States each year who could receive passive immunity from their mothers.
To close this disconcerting education and action gap, the NWHRC and the Association of Women's Health, Obstetric and Neonatal Nurses (AWHONN) today launched "Flu-Free and A Mom-to-Be: Protect Yourself, Protect Your Baby—Get a Flu Shot!." The campaign is being supported by an educational grant from CSL Biotherapies.
"The lack of awareness and mistaken beliefs about the importance of flu vaccination during pregnancy and the risks of influenza to both mother and baby are major concerns," said Elizabeth Battaglino Cahill, RN, executive director of the NWHRC. "We are launching the 'Flu-Free and A Mom-to-Be' campaign to heighten awareness of the expert medical guidelines recommending flu vaccination for pregnant women and to encourage all moms-to-be and mothers who are nursing to get a flu shot."
For women who are pregnant or are planning to conceive during the flu season, it is vitally important that they get an influenza vaccination to protect both their health and the health of their baby. Because flu vaccination is not recommended for infants under 6 months old, it is doubly important that mothers get immunized to help reduce the risk of their babies developing potentially life-threatening complications due to influenza infection. A recent study published in the October 2008 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine found that mothers who were immunized against the flu during pregnancy reduced the chance of their baby contracting a respiratory illness with fever by 29 percent.
Both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology (ACOG) recommend that all women who are pregnant during the flu season or recently gave birth be immunized against the flu. Pregnant women are more likely to be hospitalized from complications of influenza, especially in their third trimester, than non-pregnant women of the same age. Infants under 6 months have the highest rate of hospitalization from influenza among children in the U.S. That rate is even higher than in elderly and other high-risk groups, noted the October 2008 NEJM study.
"Influenza is a serious health risk for everyone, but is even more serious for groups, such as pregnant women, because they do not have the same ability to fight off the virus that could potentially cause complications in the pregnancy," said Ashley Roman, MD, MPH, Clinical Assistant Professor, Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, New York University Langone Medical Center. "As a practicing obstetrician, I always urge my patients to obtain their flu shot to protect themselves and their baby, and to explore thimerosal-free options if they are concerned about vaccine preservatives."
Survey Findings Reveal Barriers to Vaccination
The ground-breaking survey of 528 pregnant or new mothers clearly shows that influenza vaccination is not on many women's prenatal radar. In fact, more women responded that avoiding caffeine during pregnancy is important to prenatal health (68%) than getting a flu shot (56%). Even among those women with regular prenatal care or healthcare provision, 60 percent said they had never discussed getting a flu shot with their healthcare provider.
This communication gap is significant, as the survey found that a healthcare professional's recommendation is among the most important influences on a pregnant woman's decision to get a flu shot. Of women who decided not to receive a flu shot during pregnancy, 72 percent indicated they would get vaccinated if their healthcare professional recommended it.
Doubts and misperceptions about the safety of the flu shot to a pregnant mother and her baby's health are adding to the disconnect. Overall, half of women (49%) either believe the flu shot is not safe for pregnant women, or are uncertain about its safety. Only 18 percent believe it is safe to receive a flu shot at any stage of pregnancy. And, nearly half of all women (48%) said they are concerned about thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative, in flu shots. When asked if they were aware of a thimerosal-free flu shot option, fewer than one in five (19%) responded yes. Of those who decided not to be vaccinated while pregnant, 49 percent reported they would be likely to get the flu shot if a thimerosal-free option was available. In fact, seven states have banned the use of thimerosal-containing vaccines in children and pregnant women: California, Delaware, lllinois, Missouri, New York and Washington. Twenty-two other states have pending legislation regarding thimerosal-containing vaccines.
"This survey underscores the need for healthcare providers to prioritize influenza protection as part of their overall prenatal and newborn care plan with their patients," said Catherine Ruhl, CNM, MS, associate director of women's health programs at the Association of Women's Health, Obstetric and Neonatal Nurses. "It is clear that healthcare providers have a significant opportunity to improve vaccination rates in pregnant women and new mothers, including those who are breastfeeding, just by proactively recommending the flu shot, pointing out the benefits for the mom and baby, and discussing thimerosal-free vaccine options with women who are interested in avoiding mercury-based preservatives. We hope that the "Flu-Free and A Mom-to-Be" campaign tools and messages will help women and their healthcare providers overcome barriers to influenza vaccination for pregnant women."
The "Flu Free and A Mom-to-Be" campaign was launched to urge women who are pregnant or who are planning to conceive or who are new mothers to protect themselves with a flu shot during flu season. The program also aims to mobilize healthcare providers to educate and vaccinate their patients according to existing flu recommendations.