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Health Officials Dispel Fears About Flu Vaccine for Pregnant Women

Anthony Advincula | 12/3/2010, 9:32 a.m.

NEWARK, N.J.--As a nonprofit counselor for pregnant women, Rebecca Manson encounters the same question almost every day: Is it really safe to get the flu vaccine during pregnancy?

Hearing the fear in the voices of expectant mothers, many of whom have read scare stories on the Internet, Manson wanted to make that sure she was providing the correct information. She sought answers from health officials.

"It brought me to a point where I needed to get the answer directly from the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention]," she said. "I knew the vaccine was safe, but I wanted to find more explanations from the experts."

Dr. Felipe Lobelo, a senior fellow at CDC's National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, reiterated the safety of the vaccine for pregnant women, assuring: "It's the best single way to protect the mother and the baby in her womb."

"A pregnant woman is more susceptible to complications," Lobelo said in an interview at a recent press briefing with ethnic media in Newark. "If she gets any type of flu, she has a greater chance for serious health problems. Therefore, it's very important for a pregnant woman to get a flu shot to protect both her and her baby."

Lobelo also refuted misinformation about the vaccine's effects on unborn children that swamps the Internet. Contrary to those stories, he said, research shows that babies born to mothers who had a flu shot in pregnancy get sick with flu less often than babies whose mothers didn't get vaccinated.

The CDC's website encourages pregnant women to get both the H1N1 and seasonal flu vaccines. The vaccines come in a form of a shot or a nasal spray.

However, pregnant women should get the shot and NOT the spray, the website says. That's because the nasal spray "is made with live, weakened flu virus," the site explains. "It should be used only in healthy people 2-49 years of age who are not pregnant."

Yet even in the event that a spray version of the vaccine were given to an expectant mother--for example, before she knew she was pregnant--the CDC says there would be very little chance of any negative effects for her or her child. "Weakened, live flu virus has never been shown to be passed to the unborn baby," the CDC says.

What's more, the spray and the shot versions are both safe for new mothers, "even if they are nursing," the CDC says.

Manson was surprised to find that the vaccine is so safe. "See, I didn't know that," she said. "I'm glad to find that out."

In the 1970s, the Japanese government forced a compulsory vaccination, noted Dr. Peter N. Wenger, associate professor in the departments of Preventive Medicine & Community Health and Pediatrics at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. When the vaccination was stopped after several years, the flu mortality rate increased.

"If you are pregnant or considered to be high-risk, rather than wearing a mask, gloves and a gown while walking around to protect yourself from the flu virus, get yourself vaccinated," Wenger said. "Certainly, it's more harmful if you don't."