In a year when hospitalizations for the flu are at a 10-year high, the pregnant population, whose risk for severe disease is heightened, is lagging when it comes to vaccinations.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that, through November of this year, just 55.3% of pregnant people have received their influenza vaccine, compared to 62.3% last year. The disparity is even more striking among minorities, with 29.8% of Black pregnant people having gotten their flu shot this year versus 39.9% last year, and 51.6% of Hispanic pregnant people having gotten vaccinated this year as compared to 62.7% last year.
Dr. Noelia Zork suspects part of the explanation may be vaccination fatigue. But with flu cases skyrocketing, it’s important to get vaccinated if you're pregnant for a number of reasons, says Zork, a high-risk obstetrician and an assistant clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the Columbia University Irving Medical Center.
“Flu causes more severe disease in pregnant people,” Zork tells TODAY.com. “That’s why we recommend vaccination in pregnancy. Before COVID-19 came along, every year you would see a handful of pregnant women in the intensive care unit intubated and on breathing machines.”
While the flu vaccine doesn’t stop everyone from getting sick, it does lessen the severity of the illness, Zork says. “Plus, the vaccine shortens the duration of the disease,” she adds.
Getting the flu during pregnancy can also cause problems for the fetus. “The flu doesn’t cross the placenta and go to the baby, but if it makes Mom sick, she can develop breathing difficulties and other complications that can hurt the baby,” Zork explains.
Moreover, a high fever early in pregnancy can be harmful to the to the developing fetus, says Dr. Luciana Vieira, an assistant professor at the Icahn School of Medicine and a maternal fetal medicine attending at The Mount Sinai Hospital. “We know from good studies that high fevers at this point in the pregnancy are associated with an increased risk of neural tube (which forms the early brain and spine) defects and other adverse outcomes,” she tells TODAY.com.
Some patients worry that getting vaccinated will be risky for the pregnancy, Vieira says. “We have good objective data showing that the flu vaccine does not raise the risk for birth defects or miscarriage,” she adds.
For those in their third trimester, getting vaccinated is especially important because "there is passive transfer of immunity to the baby through the placenta,” Vieira says. “That’s important since babies can’t be vaccinated until they are 6 months old.”
Without that passive transfer of antibodies, the baby has no immunity to the flu, Zork says.