Two new studies confirm that the pertussis vaccine is safe for pregnant women – and it works for their babies too. The vaccine helps to reduce the risk of infants contracting pertussis (whooping cough), an infectious disease which can be devastating for babies.
The research is important because pregnant women are understandably careful about any medicine or vaccine they take. Indeed, most will watch what they each in case they eat something containing bacteria or parasites. They need to know the vaccine is safe.
More than being safe, it seems mothers who have the vaccine are passing protective antibodies on to their babies in utero. By having a pertussis vaccine at the right time, they can give babies some protection during their vulnerable first few weeks.
What exactly did the research say?
The BMJ study looked at more than 20,000 pregnant women in the UK – typically aged around 30 – who had received the acellular pertussis vaccine. The scientists compared the health of babies born to this group with the health of babies born to a similar group of women who had not been vaccinated during pregnancy.
The outcome was clear: the vaccine is safe for pregnant women and their babies.
This is excellent news as it adds to the large volume of evidence showing that the pertussis vaccine can safely protect new-born babies from serious illness.
Specifically, there was no evidence that being vaccinated during pregnancy increased the risk of stillbirth, early delivery, pre-eclampsia, foetal distress, haemorrhage, uterine rupture, maternal or neonatal death, neonatal renal failure, caesarean delivery or vasa praevia – all of which are serious problems that can occur naturally in pregnancy.
The effectiveness study in The Lancet showed the vaccine was around 90% effective.
“Our assessment of the programme of pertussis vaccination in pregnancy in England is consistent with high vaccine effectiveness. This effectiveness probably results from protection of infants by both passive antibodies and reduced maternal exposure, and will provide valuable information to international policy makers.”
Booster in third trimester
Several countries now encourage pregnant woman to have a pertussis booster during pregnancy, often in the early weeks of the third trimester. Mothers can then pass some of this immunity on to their baby.
The vaccine should be given to pregnant women only when clearly needed. If you are pregnant and unsure when to have the vaccine, contact your doctor.
Pertussis is a highly contagious disease caused by a bacterium known as Bordetella pertussis. In adults, symptoms are usually mild but for children aged less than three months, serious and fatal complications can occur.
Pertussis is included in one of the earliest vaccines babies receive but, unless their mother has received the vaccine at the right time during her pregnancy, the baby is unable to combat an infection in the first months of life and is not fully protected until they have had three doses of the vaccine.
In the UK, where this study took place, a pertussis outbreak which began in late 2011 prompted the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation to recommend the rollout of a vaccination programme for pregnant women.
Pertussis immunisation has been routinely recommended for pregnant women in the United States since 2011 without any safety concerns arising.
In Belgium, following a campaign led by parents of a child who died in 2010 from pertussis, the Superior Health Council recommends vaccination for pregnant women as part of comprehensive new guidelines issued last year.
Pertussis is not the only vaccine recommended for pregnant women. The WHO says pregnant women are one of the top priorities for flu vaccination.
Earlier this year, a separate study confirmed that the flu vaccine is safe for pregnant woman. The flu vaccine has been shown to reduce the risk premature birth and low birth weight.
Women of child-bearing years are advised to keep up to date with all recommended vaccines. Being immunised against rubella prior to pregnancy can help to eliminate serious birth defects known as congenital rubella syndrome.
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