Fighting the flu

Pregnant women should make sure they’re fully informed about the vaccine, says Fiona Dillon

Fiona Dillon

It's a celebrity baby boom at the moment, with actress Natalie Portman becoming the latest high-profile personality to confirm she is expecting a bundle of joy later this year. The 29-year-old actress has become engaged to a French ballet dancer and choreographer, Benjamin Millepied, who she met during the production of her newly released movie, Black Swan, which has attracted an Oscar buzz.

She joins a host of other celebrities who are expecting babies this year, including television presenter Holly Willoughby (29), former pop star and television presenter Myleene Klass (32), and Abbey Clancy (24) the fiancée of England footballer Peter Crouch.

Penny Lancaster (39), who is married to crooner Rod Stewart, is also expecting another baby in the coming months.

They, like all pregnant women, will be receiving lots of important advice on how to remain healthy up to the birth of their babies.

One of the decisions that all pregnant women are faced with relates to the flu vaccine. This year's seasonal flu vaccination campaign, which began in September, includes pregnant women for the first time.

It advises that women who are pregnant should be routinely offered this vaccine.

The Health Service Executive (HSE) said in recent days: "Each winter we see an increase in the number of people suffering with flu. We are now experiencing our annual seasonal flu season, and, as had been expected, this year the predominant flu virus is the H1N1 virus, also known as swine flu.

"This flu virus affects younger people and those with pre-existing medical conditions. Women who are pregnant or have been in the past six to eight weeks are also particularly at risk.

"We are now seeing a major rise in people attending GPs and GP out-of-hours services with flu-like illnesses. Most people who get the flu are able to self-medicate and be looked after at home, with rest and plenty of fluids, as with seasonal flu. However, as had been anticipated, this winter some people have been hospitalised as a result of their illness and a small number have been admitted to intensive care units," the HSE added.

It said that the best protection from this virus is the flu vaccine. This year's vaccine also has protection against the swine-flu virus.

"Anyone who has not already had the vaccine, particularly pregnant women, people with long-term health conditions, people aged 65 and over and their carers and healthcare workers should consider getting the vaccine," the HSE said.

However, this year, a large number of people will be immune to swine flu, either because they had the virus last year or they received the vaccine during the previous campaign here.

The Health Protection Surveillance Centre (HPSC) has available on its website an information leaflet for pregnant women on the seasonal flu vaccine 2010-2011.

It says that the vaccine will protect against the swine-flu virus, and can be given at any stage of pregnancy.

It explains that: "The vaccine is safe for pregnant women. Seasonal flu vaccines have been given for more than 60 years."

The leaflet points out that seasonal flu vaccine has been recommended for several years for all pregnant women in the USA. It said that: "Vaccination during pregnancy can protect the baby and also helps prevent the mother getting flu and passing it on to her baby."

According to the leaflet, the vaccine is safe for breastfeeding mothers. It pointed out that the vaccine starts to work within two weeks.

It said that a "healthy pregnant woman who has already received a course of swine-flu vaccine does not need any further vaccine. However, pregnant women who have a long-term medical condition, such as diabetes, heart or lung disease, need to get the seasonal flu vaccine, even if they already had swine-flu vaccine."

The vaccine and consultation are free to those within the recommended groups who have a medical card or doctor-only card.

Each year, a vaccine is developed to protect against the strains of flu virus that are expected to be most prevalent that winter. This is used throughout the Northern hemisphere. The process of developing the vaccine is led by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The flu jab is offered to people in at-risk groups. These are people, such as pregnant women and the elderly, who are at greater risk of serious complications if they catch flu.

Experts say that pregnant women are at greater risk from swine flu because in pregnancy, the immune system is naturally suppressed, which means that pregnant women are more likely to catch flu.

In the UK, professor Dame Sally Davies, the chief medical officer for England, said: "Pregnant women are more likely to become seriously ill if they catch flu, which is why it is particularly important for them to get their jabs."

Meanwhile, the Rotunda Hospital in Dublin has confirmed the occurrence of a small number of swine flu cases. It is encouraging expectant mothers and women up to six weeks after birth to attend GPs for seasonal flu vaccination.