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3 myths about the flu vaccine and pregnant women. (And why they're wrong).

Noa, when she was sick.

When my second baby was three weeks old, she caught what I thought was a little cold.

I hated seeing her sick, of course, but I actually wasn’t all that worried; kids get colds, I thought. She’ll be fine by morning.

The next morning Noa still had a fever, so we took her to our family doctor, ‘just to be safe.’ I completely expected him to prescribe some baby Panadol and send us on our way, but his concerned expression said otherwise: “I think you should pop up to the hospital,” he said.

Off we went to the emergency room, where we were quickly spirited past the two-dozen injured souls waiting to be seen.

Things suddenly turned real. The doctor gently but immediately took my baby from my arms and said, “We have to do some tests, including a lumbar puncture, ultrasound, x-rays and ECG. Your little one is very sick and we need to find out why.”

Four days, five doctors, dozens of tests, virtually no sleep and one very unhappy baby later, we had a diagnosis: viral meningitis caused by enterovirus.

Thankfully, she made a full recovery and she’s now a happy, healthy, one-year-old ball of energy.

But that experience was terrifying. Surreal.

Despite the doctor telling me over and over, “This is not your fault,” I couldn’t help but blame myself. Did I not wash my hands enough? Fail to sterilise her dummies? As parents we’re meant to protect our babies and I felt like I’d failed her.

Just as an FYI, you should know that this post is sponsored by NSW Health. But all opinions expressed by the author are 100 per cent authentic and written in their own words.

Driving home from the hospital, my husband asked when she was due for her first vaccinations. “Not ‘til she’s two months old,” I said. “But you couldn’t vaccinate against this, anyway.”

Little did I realise that Noa had actually missed her first vaccination; I could have had the influenza shot when I was pregnant with her. Again, it wouldn’t have protected her against the specific illness she had, but it could have given us both immunity against the flu – me for around a year, and Noa until she was roughly six months old.

I didn’t even think to get the flu shot when I was pregnant. I viewed it as being for immunosuppressed people and (duh!) I didn’t identify as being one of them.

As with most vaccinations, there are all sorts of misconceptions out there about the flu vaccine, so I chatted with Dr Vicky Sheppeard, Director of the Communicable Diseases at the NSW Ministry of Health, to clear up a few myths.

Myth #1: Getting the flu vaccination gives you a live dose of the virus and can actually make you sick.

“No, that’s not true,” Vicky Sheppeard says.

“The flu vaccine used in Australia is ‘inactivated’. That means the virus has been killed and there are just remnants contained in the vaccine to stimulate immunity.”

“At worst, you could get a few mild flu-like symptoms. However, only one in ten adults who receive the influenza vaccine experience these side effects.”

Noa had actually already missed her first vaccine. Sarah could have received the flu vaccine, which would have protected both mother and child.

Myth #2: The influenza vaccine only protects you from one strain of the virus, so there’s no point in getting it, as you could still get the flu.

“Influenza vaccination is the single most effective way to avoid getting the flu.” Vicky Sheppeard says.

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Each year, the flu vaccine is reformulated to stimulate immunity to the three strains of flu virus most likely to be circulating,”

“When the prediction has a good match with the circulating strains, the vaccine is most effective. From what we have seen so far this year, the vaccine is a good match to circulating strains so should provide good protection. That said, it can’t protect against other viruses such as the common cold, so even if you’re vaccinated, it’s still important to stay away from people who are sick and to practice healthy behaviour’s like covering your face when you cough or sneeze and washing your hands frequently.”

Myth #3: The flu vaccine is not safe for pregnant women

“There’s been extensive experiences of safe use of the influenza vaccine in pregnant women and there’s no evidence of harmful effects on the developing baby.Influenza in pregnant women can be a serious disease and is more likely to result in hospitalisation and severe disease than in other young, healthy people.”

“Unfortunately, some pregnant women are very severely affected by influenza, which has led to low birth weight, premature labour and even the loss of their baby. The best protection against getting the flu is the vaccine, as we know that vaccination during pregnancy gives immunity to the baby during the first six months of life,” Vicky Sheppeard tells me.

“Infants less than six months of age are up to ten times more likely to go to hospital with influenza than older children. Also, the vaccine is not licensed for children less than six months of age so protection can only be achieved by vaccinating a mother during pregnancy.”

Also, when Noa was hospitalised, there was a period of about eight hours where the doctors were seriously worried. She was monitored every 30 minutes.

“She’s gravely ill, and we don’t know why,” the head pediatrician told us quietly. For a few gut-wrenching hours, I fought to keep my mind focused on right now, because to think even two hours ahead presented unthinkable possibilities.

It was the worst week of my life, hoping and praying for my baby to return to health – I wouldn’t wish that on anyone. “Imagine if she was sick with a disease we could have vaccinated against,” my husband said later.

Honestly, the thought still haunts me. And now that I’m informed about the flu vaccine, I know that if we decide to add to our family down the track, I’ll get the flu shot in a heartbeat. Because the risk of the alternative is unthinkable.

Were you aware that all pregnant women should get the flu vaccine? Have you had yours yet? 

Here are some more vaccine myths, and ways to combat anti-vaccination rhetoric. 

 

 

Only one in five pregnant women in NSW are getting the free influenza vaccine despite being at high risk of severe illness.

Flu illness during pregnancy can be serious with an increased risk of hospitalisation, premature labour and low birth weight.

Vaccination during pregnancy is safe and effective and is strongly recommended for all pregnant women.

Better still, it benefits both mother and baby as protective antibodies are transferred across the placenta, protecting the baby for up to six months.

The flu vaccine is FREE for all pregnant women through the Immunise Australia Program and is available from your local GP.

 

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