By Mary Wade Triplett
This is where the mother comes in. During a pregnancy, a woman is getting vaccinated for two—not only to keep her from getting ill but also to pass on maternal antibodies against certain diseases to her baby.
Two great examples are the vaccines to protect against influenza and pertussis, better known as whooping cough, both of which should be administered to the mother during pregnancy. A woman who is expecting is at an increased risk for complications during a bout with the flu. That’s because changes in immune, heart and lung functions make a bout with the flu more potentially dangerous. And pregnant women with the flu have a greater chance for serious problems for the developing babies, including premature labor and delivery.
Babies cannot receive their first flu shot until the age of 6 months. Therefore, it makes sense for the mother to get the vaccine during pregnancy to help protect both herself and the baby.
Ideally, making sure you are up-to-date on shots actually begins before pregnancy. For women who need live vaccines, those should be administered at least one month before getting pregnant.
The measles-mumps-rubella vaccines is a great example. Most women were vaccinated as children with the MMR vaccine, but you should confirm this with your doctor. If you need to get vaccinated for rubella, you should avoid becoming pregnant until one month after receiving the MMR vaccine and, ideally, not until your immunity is confirmed by a blood test.
This is especially important now that there is an ongoing outbreak of the measles, a disease previously considered eliminated in 2000. Currently this year, there have been 1,203 reported cases of measles in the United States between Jan. 1 and Aug. 15.
Take the Adult Vaccine Quiz to find out what vaccines you may need before becoming pregnant.
Vaccines received during pregnancy should be inactivated, which means the viruses or bacteria in the vaccine are killed rather than weakened. Pregnant women can receive a flu shot made with killed virus during any trimester, so that is not a problem. Flu activity can begin as early as October and can last as late as May, and it generally takes up to two weeks for the vaccine to provide full protection against the flu.
Then there is whooping cough. Young babies are especially susceptible to a bout with this disease, often being exposed to it by adults who might not realize they have it. Babies do not begin the series of five vaccines, called DTaP, until the age of 2 months and ending between the ages of 15 to 18 months. Up to 20 babies die of whooping cough each year in the United States, and about half of the babies younger than the age of 1 who get illness require treatment in the hospital.
Not only that, but despite its name, not all babies have the hallmark cough when sick with this disease. Instead, it can cause them to stop breathing and turn blue.
The good news is that whooping cough is usually less severe in babies whose mothers got the vaccine while pregnant. Over the age of 6, the inoculation that helps protect against pertussis—as well as diphtheria and tetanus—is called the Tdap vaccine. And an expectant mother who wants to protect her child against whooping cough should get the Tdap vaccine between 27 and 36 weeks of pregnancy, each time she is having a baby.
Another strategy for keeping babies safe is for any other caregivers or household members who will be close to the infant inoculated as well. This is called “cocooning,” and while it’s a good idea, it is still important for the pregnant mother to receive the Tdap vaccine.
Then there is Hepatitis B. West Virginia currently has the highest rate of this illness in the country. Expectant mothers who have Hep B should discuss getting the vaccine with their health care provider. It could lessen your baby’s chance of getting Hep B.
So while making plans for the baby like what color to paint the nursery and reading up on childbirth, expectant mothers also should explore the vaccines they should receive during pregnancy. Talk to your ob-gyn or midwife, visit the CDC’s website or call the Monongalia County Health Department's Clinical Services at 304-598-5119 to make an appointment for vaccines.