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Column originally published Nov 9, 2010

Pandemic Influenza Vaccine Was Very Effective, Pregnant Women Should Get Flu Shot During Pregnancy

Question: I am six-months-pregnant. I am debating whether I should get the flu shot or not. Last year, our whole family lined up for hours to get the pandemic flu vaccine. We didnʼt get sick, but we heard that the government over-rated the danger of the pandemic, and those that profited were the manufacturers of flu vaccine. We have two young boys and they both have asthma. I know they probably should get the flu shot, but I am not as certain about myself. I am nervous about getting a vaccine while I am pregnant. I am always careful with what I eat and drink, and I am worried that getting the vaccine may harm my baby.


The short answer for your question is yes, you should receive the flu shot because it can protect you and your baby. Let me explain to you in greater detail here.

In 2009, the World Health Organization declared the H1N1 influenza pandemic because the virus was spreading rapidly around the world, and many died or suffered severe influenza infection. As a result, much resource was mobilized around the world, including Canada, to combat the infection and to prevent the spread of H1N1 influenza virus.

Tamiflu, a medicine that is effective against many strains of influenza A virus, was widely distributed to all health regions across the country. Many patients who developed influenza-like illness were tested and given this medicine. Although the pandemic was not as wide-spread as originally feared, some did become very sick or died as a result of H1N1 infection. Fortunately, most who got the infection improved very quickly once they started taking Tamiflu.

However, I want to point out a number of measures that likely prevented the spread of H1N1 in Canada. As you know, many Canadians lined up for hours to receive this pandemic H1N1 vaccine in schools, in malls, as well as in medical clinics. Many schools would not allow students to attend unless they have received the vaccine. Furthermore, schools also encouraged students to use hand-sanitizers and effective hand-washing. Students also learned to cough into their elbows instead of into their hands. Those who were sick were encouraged to stay home.

Many of these same measures were used in workplaces across the country. Employees were encouraged to stay home when they were sick. When they visited specially-staffed health clinics set up for the pandemic, they were screened rapidly, some were tested, and all were treated with Tamiflu. Tamiflu stopped the growth of influenza virus in those infected, therefore, reduced the spread of H1N1 to others, and helped them recover faster from the infection.

The widespread use of H1N1 vaccine also prevented many from getting infected in the first place. The success of all these measures has prevented not only the predicted pandemic from happening in Canada, but also the spread of other strains of influenza virus, as well as other viruses that normally attack the respiratory tract. Essentially, we had a better winter last year, thanks to the effort of everyone involved, including you and your family.

Unfortunately, our society has become too critical and judgmental. If we had a severe pandemic, many will call for inquiries to find out who didnʼt do their job properly. When the pandemic did not materialize, then some would call it fear-mongering, and accused vaccine-manufacturers of profiteering. The truth is that many around the world did get very sick, and a lot of them died, from H1N1 infection. Try to tell these families that H1N1 infection was not that big a deal.

What you should know is this: H1N1 is still circulating especially in South America, Southeast Asia, as well as Australia and New Zealand. It accounts for 10-20 percent of influenza cases in these countries in the last few months. The majority of influenza infections are caused by another strain called H3N2, while some are due to influenza B viruses.

This yearʼs influenza vaccine consists of three strains of influenza: H1N1 (similar to the pandemic strain), H3N2 (similar to the one most active around the world this year), as well as an influenza B strain. Judging from what has been circulating in other countries, this yearʼs vaccine seems to be well-chosen, and should protect most Canadians from getting infected with influenza.

You should get the flu shot because pregnant women are more susceptible to serious influenza infection than non-pregnant women. Pregnancy does affect a womanʼs immunity to infections. More importantly, you will develop immunity to influenza and pass on the immunity to your baby before he is born. During the first six months of life, babies are most susceptible to serious influenza infection, and this is the same time when they cannot receive the flu shot because they cannot respond to the vaccine. By getting the vaccine yourself during pregnancy, you not only protect yourself, but you also protect your child after he is born. The benefit is much greater than you thought.

Influenza vaccine is very safe even during pregnancy. That is why Health Canada strongly recommends flu shot for pregnant women. Those who have chronic diseases as well as conditions that affect their immune system should also receive the vaccine. Anyone looking after them, including all health care workers, should be vaccinated. Seniors, of course, should get the flu shot annually.

I hope you are more convinced, after reading this column, that you and your family should receive the flu shot.