Pregnancy and Vaccinations: What you need to know
The recent coronavirus pandemic has brought forth the importance of vaccinations. Vaccines are probably the most significant and effective ways to prevent a wide range of bacterial and viral infections.
When we think of vaccinations, we generally think that they are meant only for children. In reality, vaccinations are as important for adults, if not more. This is because many infections such as chickenpox might be harmless or mild for children but extremely severe for adults.
Pregnant women have to be exceptionally careful about their health as it directly impacts the health of their babies. Vaccinations help safeguard both the mother and child from infections during pregnancy. Pregnant women, who get vaccinated pass on important infection-fighting antibodies to their babies helping them develop stronger and healthier.
Many women also have concerns about the impact vaccinations can have on their unborn child. Let us take a closer look into vaccinations during pregnancy, their importance and possible risks.
What are vaccines?
Vaccines are a safe and effective way to protect people from harmful diseases and infections before they are exposed to them. They often contain weakened or inactive forms of the virus/bacteria. They are designed to stimulate an immune response from the body without creating any severe complications of the disease.
According to the World Health Organisation, we now have vaccines that can prevent more than 20 life-threatening diseases. It is estimated that immunisation drives prevent 2-3 million deaths every year due to diseases such as diphtheria, tetanus, influenza and measles.
Smallpox is considered to be the first disease to be completely eradicated by vaccination (as declared by the WHO in 1980). Vaccination efforts have also helped drastically reduce the occurrence of diseases such as polio and guinea worm disease.
What vaccines are a must during pregnancy?
Most women are advised to undergo a blood test either during their pre-pregnancy check-up or their early prenatal visit. This test should check if they are immune to certain infections that can cause complications during pregnancy such as chickenpox.
If they do not have the antibodies that can protect them and their baby during pregnancy, they should get vaccinated. Pregnant women are generally not given vaccines containing live viruses.
There are two main vaccines recommended for women who are pregnant, these include:
1. Flu (Influenza) shot
For most of us, flu is a harmless albeit extremely uncomfortable infection. It can leave us feeling weak with muscle ache and diminished appetite. However, we generally recover without any medical intervention.
On the other hand, flu can cause extremely severe complications in pregnant women. It can lead to preterm delivery and birth, affecting your baby’s growth and development.
The flu vaccine (commonly called the flu shot) is made of an inactive virus and hence is considered safe during pregnancy. The influenza nasal spray should be avoided as it contains the live virus.
Women who are pregnant during the flu season, or amidst a flu pandemic/epidemic should definitely talk to their doctor about getting a flu shot.
2. Tetanus toxoid, reduced diphtheria toxoid and acellular pertussis (Tdap) vaccine
The Tdap vaccine offers protection against the following diseases,
Tetanus (T) causes pain and stiffness in the muscles. In later stages, tetanus can cause serious complications such as trouble swallowing or breathing and even death.
Diphtheria (D) causes difficulty in breathing, paralysis, heart failure and sometimes death.
Pertussis (aP) or whooping cough can result in incessant and violent coughing. It is especially dangerous for newborn who have not been vaccinated as yet, causing complications such as pneumonia, convulsions, brain damage and death.
Women are generally administered the Tdap vaccine in the early part of their third trimester (in each pregnancy). They pass on the antibodies to their babies providing them valuable protection from these diseases for a few months after birth. The babies can then be vaccinated when they are 2 months old.
What are other vaccines that might be recommended for pregnant women?
In some cases, there might be an increased risk of any particular type of infections. Especially in cases when travelling is involved. If your obstetrician feels that there is a chance of you being exposed to meningococcal disease, you might be asked to get the required vaccinations. These include:
- Hepatitis B: Hepatitis B is a viral infection that damages the liver causing both acute or chronic disease. Women who have hepatitis B can easily infect their babies during delivery. Women are advised to get tested for Hepatitis B either before or in the early stage of their pregnancy.
- Hepatitis A: Similar to Hepatitis B, Hepatitis A is a viral disease that affects the liver. It can cause mild to severe symptoms. It is usually transmitted via contaminated food, water or direct contact with an infected person. This vaccine is recommended for pregnant women with a history of chronic liver disease.
- Vaccines for travel: If you are planning on visiting any new place, especially foreign countries, talk to your obstetrician at least 6 weeks before your travel. Based on your destination and the infections prevalent there, your doctor might recommend certain vaccines for your safety as well as your baby’s.
What are the vaccines that should be avoided during pregnancy?
Pregnant women are advised to avoid vaccines containing live viruses. These include:
- Chicken pox vaccine (Varicella vaccine)
- Shingles vaccine (Zoster vaccine)
- HPV (Human Papillomavirus) vaccine
- MMR (measles, mumps and rubella vaccine)
- BCG vaccine for tuberculosis
In extremely rare cases, vaccines can cause complications. Especially if you are allergic to any component of the vaccine. Remember to inform your obstetrician about any allergies you might have. If you are not suitable for any particular vaccine, ask your doctor alternate ways to protect your baby against harmful infections.