Vaccinations for Parents: What You Need to Know
Why do parents need to be vaccinated?
No one likes being poked in the arm with a needle, but when it comes to keeping your newborn healthy, that's just what doctors and health experts recommend for parents. "In addition to the direct benefit of preventing birth defects in the fetus and illness in the pregnant woman, vaccination protects against infection with bacteria or viruses by stimulating the body's immune system to produce protective antibodies," says C. Mary Healy, M.D., director of vaccinology and maternal immunization for the Center for Vaccine Awareness and Research at Texas Children's Hospital. "A newborn baby's immune system is not mature or developed enough to produce these antibodies in the first few weeks to months of life. Antibodies from the mother are transferred to the fetus while still in the womb."
Dad and siblings needs to get in on the act, too. Most newborns that come down with illnesses such as whooping cough and flu catch it from someone inside the home. "It's important for anyone coming into contact with a child six months and younger to be vaccinated against certain conditions," says Dr. Healy.
The best time for Mom to get vaccinated is before conception. If you've already missed that time frame, consult with your Ob-Gyn before getting any vaccination. If you decide to wait, be sure to get protected soon after you give birth.
Vaccinations and Breastfeeding
Moms who breastfeed might worry about getting vaccinated for these conditions, but it's perfectly safe. "Breastfeeding is not a contraindication or precaution to vaccination," says Dr. Healy. "On the contrary, antibodies against vaccine-preventable diseases have been discovered in breast milk collected from women vaccinated during and after pregnancy."
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the only vaccination that hasn't been thoroughly researched for breastfeeding moms is the Hepatitis A vaccine (which is not necessary for all women). And while it is unlikely that the vaccine would have any negative effects on breastfed babies, the CDC recommends that doctors consider administering immune globulin (an antibody) rather than the vaccine.
Of course, consult with your doctor and your child's pediatrician if you're hesitant to receive a vaccine while breastfeeding.
Pertussis (Whooping Cough)
Pertussis, also known as whooping cough, is an infection of the respiratory system caused by the bacterium Bordetella pertussis. Although some teens and adults come down with it and simply think they have a persistent cough, the illness is a serious problem for babies six months and younger before they're fully protected through immunization.
In severe cases, pertussis can lead to pneumonia, seizures, brain infection, and even death (mainly in babies three months and younger). According to Dr. Healy, two-thirds of babies that come down with pertussis require hospitalization. "Most of the time, we find that the child has caught whooping cough from someone in the house," she says.
Since 1996, the flu shot (which now includes H1N1) has been recommended for pregnant women. Unfortunately, it’s reported that only about 15 percent of pregnant women get the shot each year, which can be dangerous to both moms and babies. "Influenza has been shown to cause more severe illness in pregnant than in non-pregnant women and sometimes leads to pneumonia, hospitalization and, rarely, death," says Dr. Healy.
In addition to protecting expectant moms, the vaccine offers protection for newborns who are unable to get the shot (it is recommended for babies six months and older). "There is research that babies whose mothers were immunized during pregnancy have immunity from the flu for the first few months of life, and hospitalization rates for those babies are also significantly lower," says Bruce Hirsch, M.D., attending physician, Infectious Disease Division at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset, NY.
Did you already give birth? You should still get vaccinated, as should your husband and all of your child's caregivers (babysitters, grandparents, etc.) – especially if your baby is younger than six months. And Dr. Hirsch points out that you need to be vaccinated each year because the vaccine is reformulated to cover that year's influenza strains.
Hepatitis A and Hepatitis B
This vaccine is for women who have risk factors for the Hepatitis A (HAV) or Hepatitis B virus (HBV) viruses. "HAV infection in pregnancy can be severe and cause miscarriage or premature delivery of the infant, says Dr. Healy. “HBV during pregnancy may lead to severe illness in both mother and fetus, and ultimately can cause severe chronic illness in the newborn." All pregnant women should undergo screening for both, and women who do not have immunity and who have a risk factor for acquiring either infection should be vaccinated.
If you didn't have chickenpox as a child, don't worry – if you were exposed to it during your lifetime, it's possible that you already have immunity to the illness (ask your doctor for a blood test to confirm). If that isn't the case, consider getting vaccinated before you conceive (there isn't enough data yet to prove the vaccine's safety for pregnant women). Chickenpox can cause severe pneumonia in pregnant women and has caused birth defects in fetuses. Because you are being administered a live virus, this is a vaccine that you should get before becoming pregnant.
MMR (Measles, Mumps, Rubella)
Measles, mumps, and rubella pose problems for pregnant women and their newborns. Most of us have already been vaccinated, but if you haven't, talk to your doctor about receiving the shot before you become pregnant or after you deliver (this shot is a live virus, so you shouldn’t receive it while pregnant). Measles is suspected to increase the risk of miscarriage or premature delivery. Mumps isn’t associated with fetal abnormalities during pregnancy, but if a pregnant woman contracts mumps in the first trimester, the risk of miscarriage is higher. Finally, rubella during pregnancy is associated with the development of a number of abnormalities in the fetus, including intellectual disability, deafness, and heart defects.The MMR vaccine is especially important for people traveling outside of the U.S., especially since measles is most prevalent in unvaccinated communities overseas.