Influenza vaccines during pregnancy do much more than protect women from a miserable illness. They also help prevent preterm birth, infant illness and mortality and some adult illnesses, according to new commentary recently published in The Lancet.

Mark Steinhoff, MD, director of the Division of Global Child Health at Cincinnati Children’s, and three colleagues make a strong four-point case for policymakers regarding the benefits of flu vaccine for pregnant women:

  • Vaccination substantially reduces the elevated risk of hospitalization that influenza poses for pregnant women.
  • Although the flu vaccine is ineffective when given to infants less than six months old, vaccinating the mother substantially reduces the risk of hospitalization for infants during those sensitive early months.
  • Flu vaccine enhances fetal growth and development, resulting in fewer premature and low-birth-weight newborns. Healthy mothers delivering stronger, healthier newborns can reduce demand for high-cost, high-tech neonatal care, especially in developing nations.
  • Children born to vaccinated mothers are less likely to be premature and therefore, less likely to develop diabetes, heart disease and other illnesses and disabilities later in life.

These potential benefits to children suggest that more nations should join the World Health Organization, the US, Canada and nine European nations that have made pregnant women the highest priority group for their annual flu vaccination programs.

“Influenza immunisation in pregnancy should become a normative part of global prenatal care,” the authors state. “Clear summary messages need to be developed for policy makers and health-care workers to improve care of pregnant women. Locally appropriate communications are needed for pregnant women and their families that succinctly describe the burden of influenza, its effect on the mother, the fetus, and the infant, and explain how influenza immunisation in pregnancy can safely and effectively decrease these risks.”

Co-authors of the Lancet commentary were Noni MacDonald, MD, Dalhousie University, Canada; Dina Pfeifer, MD, WHO Regional Office for Europe, Copenhagen, Denmark; and Louis Muglia, MD, PhD, director of the Center for Prevention of Preterm Birth at Cincinnati Children’s.