Two studies published this fall provide important information on the flu in pregnancy. First, reviews of Centers for Disease Control data from recent flu outbreaks show that pregnant women who contract the flu are at higher risk for complications and overall have worse outcomes. Their babies can also suffer complications, including preterm birth and low birth weight. The flu is a serious illness for pregnant women but little has been known on exactly why. Theories have included a) that pregnant women have a weakened immune response to illness in general which may help prevent the rejection of the fetus and b) that changes in the body due to pregnancy exacerbate flu symptoms. New research from Stanford University, however, has uncovered new and surprising information about how a pregnant woman’s body responds to the flu.
The Stanford researchers found that pregnant women actually have an unusually strong immune response to the flu virus. Senior author of the study Catherine Blish MD, PhD said, “We now understand that severe influenza in pregnancy is a hyperinflammatory disease rather than a state of immunodeficiency. This means that treatment of flu in pregnancy might have more to do with modulating the immune response than worrying about viral replication.”
This could have important effects on how the flu is treated in pregnant women. The current course of treatment is medication to slow the replication of the virus. This, however, does not address the newly discovered hyperinflammatory response of a pregnant woman’s immune system. This is particularly important in maintaining adequate lung function in pregnant women suffering from the flu where inflammation – even when caused by too many immune cells – is of particular concern.
The physician authors of both studies recommend pregnant women receive a flu shot to reduce their risk of contracting influenza. We recognize there is a strong debate about vaccinations and encourage doulas to share evidenced based information with clients so that they can make informed decisions. Our friends over at Lamaze International’s Science & Sensibility blog have a great post from 2011 about the flu vaccination in pregnancy with a number of resource links.
– Adrianne Gordon, MBA, CD(DONA)