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Should pregnant women get the flu shot?

Dr. Judith Reichman offers advice for this mom-to be on whether or not she should get the vaccination and if it's safe for the baby.
/ Source: TODAY

Q: I'm pregnant. Do I need to get the flu shot this flu season?

A: Yes, you do. Before I get into the reasons why, let me give you a brief history of this annual viral infection. Each year the “flu” mutates and acquires new viral types that are not targeted by your last flu shot. So we all have to renew our immunity every fall. Complications from influenza are responsible for 36,000 deaths in the U.S. every year.

The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices recommends that all women who are pregnant during flu season receive the influenza vaccine. There may still be some public (and even physician) confusion over this recommendation. The vaccine was initially recommended only for women who would be in their third trimester during flu season, but it turns out that severe complications can occur in every trimester of pregnancy. Moreover, the immunization has not been found to harm the pregnancy or developing fetus. So, in 2004, the CDC recommendation changed to include all pregnant women, at all stages of gestation.

Pregnancy weakens the immune system, putting pregnant women at greater risk for complications from influenza, especially pneumonia and high fever (which can affect the fetus and even cause premature labor). And this risk gets worse as the pregnancy progresses. You’re not just coping with expanding girth as well as an enormous increase in the fluid volume of your circulation, but dealing with the flu can be devastating to you and your baby.

Despite the vaccine recommendations, statistics have shown that only 12.8 percent of pregnant women who responded to a 2002 National Health Interview Survey reported receiving the vaccination. Some obstetrical services, prenatal clinics and doctors' offices have come to the conclusion that the only way to increase vaccination compliance is to allow their nurses to give the vaccine as part of routine prenatal care. A study reported in the “Journal of Reproductive Medicine” looked at the prenatal services at the University of New Mexico Women’s Health Clinic. They found that by addressing this problem with a specific plan and allowing a nurse to “automatically” administer the flu shot to all pregnant women, influenza vaccination went from less than 1 percent in 2002-2003 to 37 percent in 2004-2005. It's interesting to note that the article also showed that patients who received care in the certified nurse midwife clinic were more likely than others to be vaccinated.

Since pregnant women aren't likely to see an internist or other physicians during their pregnancy, those administering their prenatal care should be responsible for giving them their flu shot. So if you haven't been offered this vaccine, ask for it.

Dr. Reichman’s bottom line: If you are pregnant, getting a flu shot can significantly reduce your risk of severe illness and complications from an influenza infection. It is safe and won’t hurt the baby. This infection is more virulent in pregnant women, so make sure you get vaccinated as soon as possible this flu season.

Dr. Judith Reichman, the TODAY show’s medical contributor on women’s health, has practiced obstetrics and gynecology for more than 20 years. You will find many answers to your questions in her latest book, “Slow Your Clock Down: The Complete Guide to a Healthy, Younger You,” which is now available in paperback. It is published by William Morrow, a division of .

PLEASE NOTE: The information in this column should not be construed as providing specific medical advice, but rather to offer readers information to better understand their lives and health. It is not intended to provide an alternative to professional treatment or to replace the services of a physician.