Protecting Your Baby From Disease Begins in Pregnancy
Some may call me a bad mother because I can’t remember if my back labor was with the first or second child, or if my varicose veins sprung up with my third or fourth pregnancy, or exactly what time it was when my fifth child graced this earth. But one thing I will never forget is how much time and effort I put into researching labor and delivery with my first pregnancy.
Looking back, I felt confident that I was doing everything to ensure the best possible health of my child. I ate good foods, avoided caffeine, took my vitamins, and even wrote a birth plan that expressed my desire to have a natural and un-medicated labor. Despite all the precautionary steps I took, I knew that something unexpected may occur. There could be some kind of birth complications. The baby could be in a breech position, have the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck, or be born with a birth defect. I knew the risks because I did my research, but I also did everything within my power to help ensure the health of our child.
The same goes for those first few weeks and months after our baby was born. Despite the precautions we took to keep each of our babies healthy, by limiting time outside of the home, washing hands, breastfeeding as long as possible and keeping sick siblings and family members away, there were never any guarantees. The fact remains that it can be extremely difficult to isolate our babies from infectious diseases that may be circulating in our communities, which is why my husband and I chose to immunization our children according to the recommended schedule.
What some parents don’t realize is that the childhood immunization schedule is designed to protect children from diseases at the times when they are most vulnerable. For instance, by administering the Hepatitis B vaccine at birth, we can actually reverse the effects of the virus if it was unknowingly passed from a pregnant mother to her child.
But there are two dangerous diseases that we can begin protecting babies against while they are still in the womb.
Influenza and pertussis.
In this first week of National Immunization Awareness Month – a week designated to babies and pregnant woman – it’s important to highlight that pregnant woman are advised to receive a Tdap booster vaccine with each pregnancy, as well as an annual influenza vaccine.
In the case of influenza, pregnant women are more prone to severe illness due to changes in their heart, lungs and immune system. Influenza in pregnancy can also pose serious problems for an unborn baby, including premature labor and delivery. Infants are quite fragile and at high risk for serious flu-related complications, so it’s important to safeguard them from influenza as best we can. Since infants can’t get vaccinated until they are at least 6 months of age, their best protection comes from the antibodies they receive from their vaccinated mother. A recent abstract published by the Pediatric Infectious Disease Society suggests influenza vaccination during the second and third trimester of pregnancy has the potential to confer up to 35 times more protection in the children of those who were vaccinated during pregnancy, as compared to those who were not. So the recommendation is a win-win, protecting the expectant mother as well as her unborn baby.
Pertussis (also known as whooping cough) is also of particular concern to infants. It is a highly contagious respiratory disease known for uncontrollable, violent coughing which often makes it hard to breathe. Pertussis can be fatal, especially in babies less than 1 year of age and the younger a baby is when he gets whooping cough, the more likely he will need to be treated in a hospital. The U. S. experienced a nearly 60-year record high number of cases in 2012, with more than 48,000 reported cases and 20 deaths. Unfortunately, the majority of those deaths were in infants under 3 months of age. And the outbreaks have continued through 2013 and 2014. From January 1-June 16, 2014, there has been a 24% increase in reported cases of pertussis as compared with the same time period in 2013.
Unfortunately, the DTaP vaccine that covers pertussis for infants (in addition to diphtheria and tetanus) is not administered until 2 months of age, and even then children need to complete the five dose schedule to be fully protected. This is one of the reasons the CDC recommends that pregnant women receive the a Tdap booster during each pregnancy. Getting the adult Tdap booster in each pregnancy not only helps prevent a mother from contracting pertussis and passing it on to her baby, but immunization during pregnancy creates protective antibodies that the mother can pass onto her baby before birth. These antibodies provide some short-term protection against whooping cough until a baby begins building their own immunity through childhood vaccinations. Since antibody levels are highest about two weeks after getting the vaccine, but then decrease over time, it is recommended that expectant women get vaccinated in the third trimester, preferably between the 27th and 36th week of each pregnancy. This ensures that high levels of protective antibodies are transferred to each baby.
In honor of National Immunization Awareness Month, I call upon parents to educate themselves about the vaccines that are recommended for babies and pregnant women and the diseases that can be prevented through immunizations. The best place to start is through communication with our health care providers. Whether you are speaking with a pediatrician, OB/GYNs, family practitioner, nurse practitioner, or any other health professional, be sure to ask them about the recommended vaccines for you and your baby.
Eighteen years ago, when I was pregnant with my first child, these recommendations did not exist. I’ve been fortunate that my children have not suffered as a result, but knowing the risks, if I were pregnant today I would gladly do everything within my power to protect them – to include immunizing myself in pregnancy.