Pregnant women hit hard by swine flu

Expectant moms may be among first eligible to receive vaccine for influenza A H1N1

Published July 28, 2009 7:29PM (EDT)

The first American to die of swine flu was a 33-year-old schoolteacher named Judy Trunnell of Harlingen, TX. She died on May 5, after slipping into a coma, and giving birth to a healthy baby girl by C-section. Now, American epidemiologists are finding that Trunnell's experience was not a tragic anomaly, since pregnant women infected with this flu appear more likely to suffer serious illness and even die from it.

Since April, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention believe that the virus formerly known as swine flu, now called influenza A H1N1, has infected one million Americans. Of 302 deaths in the United States to date that have been attributed to this flu, the CDC has detailed information on 266 of them, according to the Associated Press. The CDC has found that 15 of the 266 were pregnant women -- or about 6 percent. That doesn't sound like that many, but pregnant women only make up about one percent of the United States population.

Expectant moms -- especially those in the third trimester -- are more vulnerable to the effects of influenza, because of changes that happen to the lungs and immune system that make it harder for them to shake off respiratory infections, Dr. Kevin Ault, an Emory University obstetrician told the AP. In a recent report on H1N1, the World Health Organization found that pregnant women appear to be "at increased risk for severe disease, potentially resulting in spontaneous abortion and/or death, especially during the second and third trimesters of pregnancy."

The CDC's advisory committee on vaccines will meet on Wednesday to decide who should receive priority in getting the vaccinations when they become available, likely in October 2009. It's probable that health workers, who are on the front lines in treating patients with the flu will be first, but pregnant women may get bumped up to second in line.

Yet, if the H1N1 vaccine becomes available to them, will pregnant women take it? Only about 15 percent of pregnant women get vaccinated for seasonal flu, although the CDC recommends that they all should. Thanks to those unfounded fears about vaccines causing autism that just will not die, some women are concerned that the flu vaccine will harm the developing fetus.

Doctors say the vaccine actually protects both the mother and the baby-on-the-way. And when an infant is born, some of that immunity stays with them for the early vulnerable months of life. One study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2008 found that flu shots given to pregnant women reduced flu in infants by 63 percent.

The U.S. hopes to have 160 million doses of the H1N1 flu vaccine available in October. In the meantime, for some sensible tips on staying healthy -- yes, vigorous hand washing! -- click here.

By Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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