Pregnant women are missing the opportunity to receive flu vaccinations that could have a big impact on their health - and could even save their baby's life - according to a new report.
In an article in the latest Medical Journal of Australia, PhD candidate Kerrie Wiley and her co-authors state that pregnant women are at increased risk from flu, which can lead to critical illness and pre-term delivery.
Despite the fact their babies would also be protected, most neglect to have a free flu shot unless they are encouraged to do so by a health worker.
Ms Wiley and her team surveyed 815 pregnant women in the 2011 flu season in NSW, and found that fewer than a third chose to have the flu vaccine.
When their health care providers spoke to them about the vaccinations, the women were 20 times more likely to go ahead with them. However, only 42 per cent said they had received such advice.
Responding to the article, Dr Jeremy McAnulty, NSW Health director of health protection, says pregnancy takes its toll on a woman's respiratory and immune systems, so even healthy women with an uncomplicated pregnancy can develop life-threatening flu.
"Influenza vaccination can reduce the risk of severe illness in pregnant women. It also reduces the risk of disease in children up to six months after birth because of the transfer of the mum's antibodies from the vaccine," he said.
He says NSW Health has written to doctors and other clinics highlighting the importance of vaccinating pregnant women, encouraging them to speak about the program with their patients.
Also writing in the April 15 issue, Adjunct Professor Heath Kelly, of Canberra, and co-author Dr Nicholas Kelley, of Minnesota, say pregnant women in Australia are five times more likely to be admitted to hospital with flu than non-pregnant women.
They say while it's important to continue to promote the flu vaccination, its current effectiveness should not be overstated.
"Vaccination remains the single best option for controlling influenza, but improved vaccines will make policy setting and promotion of vaccination much easier."
Is it safe to have the vaccination when I'm already pregnant?
A Canberra Times reader wrote in to ask Jane Barry, a registered nurse, midwife and health nurse, about the vaccination. She asked: "I'm in my second trimester and I generally don't get a cold and have never had the flu. Should I have the needle anyway?"
Jane answered: "The recommendation from health care authorities is that all pregnant women should be vaccinated against influenza. During pregnancy, there is an increased risk of developing flu complications, and vaccination offers the best protection, particularly against contracting pneumonia.
"Even if you're generally well, pregnancy can compromise the immune system. Vaccination will also provide immunity for your baby in the first six months of their life, before they are old enough to be vaccinated themselves.
"The vaccine is safe and complications are generally restricted to some initial redness and tenderness at the injection site, and occasionally a low grade fever. The vaccine itself does not contain a live virus and, contrary to what a lot of people believe, having the vaccine cannot cause flu infection.
"Under the National Immunisation Program, all pregnant women are eligible for free flu vaccination. Check with your GP or primary health provider."