Sept. 27, 2012 -- Half of pregnant women don't get flu shots, putting themselves and their child at risk of severe flu.
The finding comes from a CDC survey showing that during last year's flu season, 53% of pregnant women did not get the seasonal flu vaccine. That's about the same percentage seen in the two previous flu seasons.
They're taking big risks, Laura E. Riley, MD, director of obstetrics and gynecology at Massachusetts General Hospital, said at a news teleconference held by major U.S. medical groups.
"We know pregnant women have a five times higher risk of getting very ill if they get the flu during pregnancy or immediately after they deliver," Riley says. "Unfortunately, we have seen women lose babies when in that condition."
Last year's flu season was one of the mildest on record. Yet Riley said one of the flu patients she saw was a healthy woman with an uncomplicated pregnancy. When she came into the emergency room, she was 26 weeks pregnant and not feeling well.
Even though the patient was a doctor, she had not had a flu shot. And she refused an offer of Tamiflu, saying she hadn't read the medical literature showing that the flu medication was safe to take during pregnancy.
"In about six hours she started to look toxic and got admitted to intensive care," Riley recalls. "She got sicker and sicker and spent five days on a ventilator. The baby did not survive."
Pregnant women who get flu shots protect their children even after birth, notes William Schaffner, MD, chair of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.
"By getting vaccinated you protect not only yourself but your newborn during those first six months of life when a baby cannot be vaccinated," he said at the news conference. "A woman passes [flu antibodies] through the placenta to her newborn."
So why don't more pregnant women get flu shots?
"We talk to pregnant women a lot about 'You can't eat this or take that,' and it is a bit of a tough sell for a pregnant woman to allow someone to inject a vaccine into her arm," Riley says. "Now many studies show it is safe. But it has taken us a while to get the message out that we are preventing a very serious disease and protecting your baby."
Litjen Tan, MD, director of medicine and public health at the American Medical Association, notes that pregnant women whose doctors recommend getting a flu shot are five times more likely to get it than when doctors don't give this advice in a clear, direct way.
Indeed, the CDC survey shows that when doctors both recommended a flu shot and offered to give one, 74% of pregnant women got the shot.
The flu vaccination survey results appear in the Sept. 27 issue of the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.