Pregnant women across Somerset, Devon and Cornwall are being urged to get vaccinated for flu amid the introduction of a new maternity services-led scheme aimed at increasing take-up.
Flu can seriously harm or even kill pregnant women and their unborn babies, who are more vulnerable to the infection. But fewer than half get the vaccine despite it currently being offered for free by GP surgeries and pharmacies.
Now, for the first time, midwives in most maternity services across Somerset, Devon and Cornwall will be offering the free flu vaccine when they see expectant mothers at ante-natal clinics, scans and other appointments.
It follows a successful pilot at Musgrove Park Hospital in Taunton last autumn and winter, which almost doubled take-up. Between October and February, 79 per cent of pregnant women using maternity services received a flu vaccination, whether by a midwife there or at their GP surgery. This compared to just 44 per cent of all pregnant women across Somerset in 2016. There was also only 45 per cent uptake in Devon and 38 per cent uptake in Cornwall in 2016.
Head of NHS Immunisation in the South West, Dr Julie Yates, said:
“Flu can cause serious health problems and even death for pregnant women and their unborn children who are much more vulnerable to the disease.
“Getting vaccinated significantly reduces the risks and I would urge all pregnant women to go out and get their free vaccine now, before the virus starts circulating in winter.
“This can be done easily through their GP, pharmacist or now by the new, convenient maternity scheme where possible.”
The NHS trusts agreeing to offer the new service from this month will be:
Royal Cornwall Hospital NHS Trust in Truro;
Plymouth Hospitals NHS Trust;
Royal Devon and Exeter NHS Foundation Trust ;
Northern Devon Healthcare NHS Trust in Barnstaple;
Yeovil District Hospital NHS Foundation Trust; and
Taunton and Somerset NHS Foundation Trust (Musgrove Park Hospital).
Debra Young, head of midwifery at Musgrove Park Hospital, said:
“We are very pleased that four in five women who gave birth under the care of our maternity services last winter got protected against flu by having a vaccination.
“Our team of midwives have been working really hard to make women aware of the serious complications that getting flu could have on them and their unborn baby.
“Many women have told us they really like the convenience of being able to have their flu vaccination at their regular midwife appointment so I’m pleased that we can offer this again during the coming months.”
Flu is a highly infectious disease with symptoms such as fever, chills, aches and pains in the joints and muscles, headaches and extreme tiredness. It can lead to hospitalisation, disability and even death.
Flu is more serious in pregnancy because a woman’s immune system is naturally weakened, meaning she is less able to fight off infections. Also as unborn babies grow, women cannot breathe as deeply, which increases the risk of developing related complications such as pneumonia. Flu can also lead to premature birth, low birth weight, stillbirth or even death in the first weeks of life.
Having the flu vaccination reduces the risk of catching flu and of having serious complications. The side effects of the flu vaccine are mild compared to having the disease itself. Unborn babies also develop some immunity from the mother after she has had the vaccine, which will provide some protection during the first few months of life.
GPs will continue to offer the free flu vaccine to pregnant women and other people in eligible groups including anyone aged over 65, young children and anyone with an underlying health condition. This additional service will also improve patient choice and access to this immunisation.
The pertussis (whooping cough) vaccine will also be offered in maternity departments alongside the flu vaccine in most of the maternity units. There is a lot of whooping cough around at the moment and babies who are too young to start their vaccinations are at greatest risk. Young babies with whooping cough are often very unwell and most will be admitted to hospital because of their illness. When whooping cough is particularly severe, they can die. Pregnant women can help protect their babies by getting vaccinated against pertussis, ideally from 16 weeks up to 32 weeks pregnant. The flu vaccine can safely be given at any stage of pregnancy.