Just 58% of kids aged 6 months to 17 years got their flu vaccine last year, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data, which marks the lowest flu vaccination coverage seen in children in the past eight seasons.
Flu shots are recommended annually at the start of flu season for everyone aged 6 months and up, including pregnant people. But the rates of flu shots in multiple populations have declined since the start of the pandemic, as have other routine childhood vaccinations.
“Over the past two years, we’ve seen some worrisome drops in flu vaccination coverage, especially in some groups of people who are at the highest risk of developing serious flu illness,” commented CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, MD, MPH, in a press conference. Both pregnant women and young children are considered especially vulnerable to influenza. “Getting the flu vaccine is the most important step you can take to protect yourself against the flu,” she stressed.
It was just 50% of pregnant women who got their flu shot last year. That number is down 5% from the 2020-2021 flu season and down nearly 8% from the 2019-2020 season.
Experts note that the upcoming 2022-23 flu season is expected to be more severe than the past two years. “Last year’s flu season was relatively mild,” said Dr. Walensky, linking that to Covid mitigation measures like masks and social distancing. Now that masking is no longer required and the world has largely returned to normal, experts fear that may mean a resurgence in flu cases.
But don’t panic: Here’s what parents and pregnant people need to know to best prepare.
7 important facts pregnant people and parents should know about flu season and the flu vaccine
1. Last year’s flu season was the longest yet
We know that last season’s flu activity was relatively mild, but still it was stronger than the year prior. It also lasted much longer than normal seasons. “Flu activity last season began to increase in November and remained elevated until mid-June, making it the latest season on record,” Dr. Walensky stated.
Influenza can be difficult to predict, but looking at the flu cases in the southern hemisphere can be a bellwether for how things might play out here, noted Dr. Schaffner. “Australia actually had the worst influenza season in the past five years.”
2. The flu shot is safe and effective
“The flu vaccine is an old vaccine,” said Tamika Auguste, MD, a practicing OB GYN, fellow of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and chairwoman of Women’s and Infants’ Services at MedStar Washington Hospital Center. “It’s been around and it has been tested on pregnant women and we know it to be safe.”
“The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommend vaccination with a flu vaccine for all pregnant women. Keep in mind, you can receive the flu vaccine in any trimester postpartum, even while breastfeeding,” she adds.
A flu shot during pregnancy has been shown to reduce a pregnant person’s risk of being hospitalized with the flu by an average of 40%.
And even if the flu vaccine is not a perfect match to the currently circulating strains, it continues to provide protection against severe disease and the complications of influenza, fellow panelist William Schaffner, MD, medical director at the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases (NFID). “This is true every time this is studied. You still get protection against hospitalization, intensive care unit admission and dying.”
If you have questions or concerns about getting the flu shot in pregnancy, don’t be afraid to bring them up to your doctor.
3. Flu can be dangerous for children
Because kids’ immune systems are still developing, getting a flu infection can hit them hard. “We need to remind parents and caregivers that flu can be dangerous for children, especially children younger than 5 years old, and children of any age with certain chronic conditions who are at higher risk of developing serious flu related complications,” said Dr. Walensky. Getting vaccinated is the first line of defense in protecting them against flu.
As an adult, even if you’re not at higher risk of complications from flu, getting vaccinated can better protect those around you who are.
4. Flu can be serious in pregnancy
At first, flu may seem innocuous, like a bad cold, but in some cases, flu can lead to secondary infection, such as pneumonia, or other complications like heart attack or stroke, especially in those with chronic conditions or weakened immune systems, including pregnancy, which is a “pseudo-immunocompromised state,” notes Dr. Auguste.
“Pregnant people are at higher risk for serious flu-related complications due to changes in the immune system, heart and lungs during pregnancy that may make them more prone to severe illness from flu,” Dr. Walensky added, “Including illness resulting in hospitalization.”
5. Getting the flu vaccine in pregnancy or when breastfeeding can protect your infant
Babies under 6 months aren’t old enough to get a flu shot, but when a pregnant person gets the flu vaccine in pregnancy, it can offer some protection to the infant. “When pregnant people get vaccinated, they pass antibodies to their developing baby which can help protect their baby from flu in their first few months of life.” If it wasn’t flu season during your pregnancy, flu vaccine antibodies can be transferred via breast milk if you’re vaccinated and continue to breastfeed.
6. Take doctor-recommended antiviral medications at the first sign of illness
If you get the flu, take early action to seek out doctor-prescribed antiviral medications, some of which may be safe for pregnancy. “Taking antivirals early can help shorten your illness, make it less severe and it may prevent more serious outcomes,” said Dr. Walensky, who also noted that it’s still important to take everyday preventive actions if you’re ill, including staying home if you’re sick, avoiding people who are sick, and always practicing good hygiene such as washing your hands often and covering coughs and sneezes.
7. You can get the flu vaccine and the Covid vaccine at the same time
Studies have shown that getting the Covid vaccine and the flu vaccine simultaneously is safe, which means you can get protection against both viruses at the same time.
“Studies of over 450,000 people conducted throughout the COVID-19 pandemic indicate that it’s safe to get both a COVID-19 vaccine and a flu vaccine at the same time,” assured Dr. Walensky. A 2022 CDC study published in “JAMA” showed that those who got a flu and Covid vaccine at the same time were only slightly more likely to experience mild side effects after vaccination, including arm soreness, headache and fatigue.
Jeb S. Teichman, MD, FAAP, a retired pediatrician and health care executive, shared that he lost his 29-year-old son Brent to flu complications in 2019. Brent was healthy but unvaccinated against flu.
“There’s a hole in our hearts that will never heal,” he said. “For all those listening to my story who are vaccine-hesitant, do it for those who love you so that they won’t walk the path that we and many other families in this country walk.”