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Pregnant women need jab as flu season descends

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Infectious disease experts have expressed alarm at evidence that less than half of pregnant women are being vaccinated against influenza as the annual flu season swings into high gear.

The Influenza Specialist Group has cited research showing that fewer than 40 per cent of pregnant women receive the flu jab despite scientific evidence that it is both safe and effective.

The World Health Organisation has designated pregnant women as a high priority for influenza vaccination because of the increased risk of complications from the infection during pregnancy, and because it provides protection for both mother and infant.

But a study of general practitioner attitudes and practices by BMC Family Practice found that a third of GPs did not consider that flu posed a serious risk to either the mother or her foetus.

ISG member, obstetrician Dr Elizabeth McCarthy, said the fact some many GPs had this belief was disturbing.

“Some GPs were under the impression that, outside of a pandemic such as [in] 2009, we needn’t worry about pregnant women and the flu. That is wrong,” Dr McCarthy said. “Pregnant women’s immune system and challenges to their heart and lungs mean that flu is worse for them. If you ask someone who has had flu in advanced pregnancy, she will very clearly remember how terrible she felt.”

The warning comes amid evidence that Australia is in the grips of a flu outbreak.

Figures compiled by the National Notifiable Diseases Surveillance System show there were 7881 laboratory-confirmed cases of flu as at 27 June, with 1053 of those occurring in the preceding fortnight.

More than half of confirmed cases involved people aged 25 to 59 years

Nationally, there were 4.6 cases per 100,000 people in the last two weeks of June, but prevalence reached as high at 7.8 per 100,000 in South Australia and 6.6 per 100,000 in Queensland.

A Health Department spokeswoman said the 2014 flu season appeared to have started in late June, but dismissed claims of a ‘killer flu’ season.

“The current timing of the rise [in cases] and the number of notifications being reported are not unusual, and are not an indication of the potential severity of the season,” the spokeswoman said.

The majority of infections involved influenza A, predominantly the 2009 strain of H1N1.

Although the flu season was already underway, Dr McCarthy said it was not too late for people, including pregnant women, to get vaccinated.

Adrian Rollins