Pregnant women: ignore the hype and get your flu shot!
The media had a field day recently when results from a new study about the flu vaccine and its safety in pregnancy were released. Despite the authors themselves saying that practices should remain unchanged based on this one small study, many pregnant women have started to question whether or not the flu shot is for them.
Before I go deeper into this, let me say if you stop reading here: please know that pregnancy and the flu definitely don’t mix! Getting your flu vaccine can be one of the best ways to protect yourself (and your unborn baby) from this disease that can be very serious and even deadly for pregnant women and their babies.
OK, back to the study. This study was funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and looked at 485 pregnant women who had a miscarriage versus 485 pregnant women who did not. They found that in 17 of the women who had miscarriages, they were more likely to have received the flu vaccine within 28 days of the miscarriage in the first trimester. These women also received a flu vaccine the year before.
This means that all other pregnant women (those who didn’t have a history of a prior vaccination, and those who had the vaccine even 29 days before their miscarriage) had no increased risk from the flu shot. And that is really strange, which is why this information is called a “signal.” This means more studies should be done, but it definitely does not mean flu vaccines equals miscarriage, and recommendations should not change until we know more.
So instead of the headlines that seemed to shout “Flu vaccines cause miscarriages!”, a more accurate headline would have been, “In women who had a flu vaccine the year before and then received one in their first trimester, they may be more likely to have a miscarriage, but we have no idea yet if the vaccine caused the miscarriage or it is just a coincidence.”
As you can guess, that second headline—despite being more accurate—is less catchy and less likely to get someone to click on a link or tune in to a news report. Most media outlets went with the more sensational (and untrue) version.
Sadly, this media frenzy may mean less pregnant women get their flu shot this year. This is bad news for both moms and babies. We know that pregnant women who get the flu are more likely to get sick, be admitted to the hospital, go into preterm labor, or sadly suffer a stillbirth or die themselves from complications from the disease. And since babies aren’t able to get the flu shot until they are 6 months old, having their mother get vaccinated while they are in utero passes on some immunity to them. If babies miss out on this opportunity to be protected, you can bet that means more young, fragile babies will unnecessarily suffer from the flu.
So what is a pregnant woman to do? Some good advice is to talk to your doctor or midwife before deciding to skip the shot or letting the verdict on your social media feed decide for you. The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists still recommends getting the flu vaccine for the reasons mentioned above (and they released a statement here responding to this new study). If you are really worried, you can always talk with your doctor or midwife about the best timing to get the vaccine, but rest assured that this signal may be but a blip on the radar. You can be sure future research is already underway so we can continue to provide the safest preventive care to moms and babies.
If you want to get into even more of the statistics and breakdown of why this study is far from certain in its conclusions, this post in Science—a reputable magazine that understands statistics and doesn’t go for outrageous headlines—does a great job of breaking down a lot of the study’s limitations. I highly suggest you look at it!