Whooping Cough and Babies
Some stories hit the news and never really leave our collective memories. There are many, but a couple of names will always make my heart clench whenever I read them. Those names are Dana McCaffrey and Riley Hughes. Both babies were only a few weeks old when they died, several years apart, as a result of contracting whooping cough (pertussis). If their names bring a tear to my eye, I can only imagine what it would be like to have carried them, birthed them, held them in my arms and loved them.
Babies under 6 months old are at the highest risk from whooping cough. They are too young to be fully vaccinated against it and make up the majority of pertussis-related hospital admissions. Approximately 1 in 200 babies who contract it will die due to brain damage or pneumonia associated with the disease.
Influenza and Babies
Earlier this year, a young child in Victoria died after contracting influenza. In fact, the flu causes around 13,500 hospitalisations per year in Australia. The bulk of those hospitalisations are elderly people and children under the age of 5.
The trouble with both influenza and pertussis is, they are highly contagious as well as potentially quite serious illnesses. In a healthy adult, the flu or whooping cough might be fairly mild. But healthy young adults can die from the flu as well. In 2009, 5% of all influenza deaths were pregnant women.
A “Mild” Case
As someone who had a “mild” case of influenza several years ago, I can tell you that it didn’t feel very bloody mild. Unless you think feeling like you’ve been run over by a truck is “mild”. That’s while also spending time shivering like an anxious chihuahua or alternatively, sweating like you’ve put in 3 solid hours of non-stop spin class. I was in bed for days, couldn’t get comfortable, pulled a muscle coughing and existed on zero energy. I don’t think I felt back to normal for a couple of weeks.
And that was “mild”. It’s also why I never miss a flu shot now.
Similarly, healthy adults with a mild dose of pertussis and still going to have a helluva cough and for some time. There’s always a chance that they won’t even know they’re infected, thinking they just have a bad cold or a touch of bronchitis. They might inadvertently infect others who maybe don’t have such a robust immune system. That includes people with medical conditions or undergoing chemo. It includes the elderly and the newly born. And if you’re pregnant? It also means you!
Pregnancy and your immune system
When you’re pregnant, your immune system isn’t quite the powerhouse it normally is and you’re more susceptible to coughs and colds and the like. That means that, if exposed, you’re even more likely to wind up with pertussis and influenza. Which is not how anyone wants to spend their pregnancy, right?
When the herd is compromised
“Herd Immunity” is the concept of everyone who can be vaccinated doing so. That way, the vulnerable among us, who can’t be vaccinated, are less likely to be exposed to illnesses that their bodies would struggle to fight off. There are many sensible souls out there who are more than happy to get their annual flu shot, but they might not realise that the vaccine that covers whooping cough gradually wears off. If their last shot was 10+ years ago, they need a booster! Many adults don’t realise this and as a result, they are inadvertently compromising the herd.
If you are pregnant, it’s a timely reminder for your family and friends to get up to date with their shots. Make sure your other children are up-to-date, too! These days, it’s not uncommon for expecting families to ask their loved ones to ensure they’ve had their vaccinations before meeting the bub.
Now, there’s an added layer of protection
And no, that is not the maxi-pad advertisement that it sounds like. It’s much better than that!
The government has reviewed the evidence and found vaccinating against flu and whooping cough during pregnancy is safe and effective. Yes- you can get a vaccine during pregnancy! At no cost! It’s through the National Immunisation Program. All you have to do is go to your doctor to get the jab!
The Influenza Vaccine during Pregnancy
Getting the actual flu is dangerous in pregnancy, for you and for your developing baby. If you get it, you’re more likely to need to be hospitalised and the flu itself increases the risk of complication in your pregnancy and even premature birth.
The good news is that you can safely have a flu shot at any time during pregnancy, so you can work out (with your GP, Ob or Midwife) when the best time is for you. We are coming in to flu season now in Australia, so it’s a great time to get it sorted- had mine last week! It is safe, with no studies showing adverse effects in pregnancy. It’s recommended that you get the flu shot in pregnancy to pass on some of those antibodies in-utero, offering some protection to your newborn.
The Pertussis Vaccine during Pregnancy
Whooping cough can have a horrendous impact during pregnancy, including pneumonia, seizures and even miscarriage. If you’re pregnant, it’s not an infection you want to risk contracting. And you sure don’t want it effecting your newborn baby. But vaccinating during pregnancy can reduce these risks.
In one landmark study, vaccination in the last week of pregnancy reduced pertussis in infants under 3 months old by a whopping 91%. Vaccination during pregnancy should happen after the 28-week mark, for maximum benefits. High levels of pertussis antibodies cross the placenta to the developing foetus. And it’s been found to be safe; studies involving more than 40,000 pregnant subjects found only mild side effects. And not “mild” like my bout of the flu- proper mild. Like a bit of soreness or redness at the injection site. It doesn’t increase the risk of serious complications like premature birth and it’s recommended during pregnancy by major health authorities like our own National Health and Medical Research Council.
One thing to remember is that, as immunity fades over time, you’ll need a booster with each and every pregnancy.
Remember, I’m not a doctor!
When it comes to vaccines, I am pretty well-read. Maybe you are too! But you still need to have a chat to your doctor about what vaccines you should be getting and when. There is a lot of misinformation out there; scaremongering and fear based on a lack of understanding on how vaccines work. You can easily be duped by what you read online on respectable-looking websites or on social media.
Don’t take them at their word, no matter how sciencey they might make it sound!
My aim here is to make you aware that these vaccines have been studied and found to be safe and beneficial during pregnancy and that you can access them for free. But I don’t expect you to take my word alone as gospel. Speak to your physician about your individual circumstances.
From Me to You:
May the rest of your pregnancy be uneventful and filled with naps, tasty snacks and good health. And may this continue once your baby arrives- naps, snacks and good health for all!