By: Mohnish Singh
Pregnant women are eligible for both free flu and Covid-19 booster vaccine this winter. Pregnancy can be an exciting, yet vulnerable time for any woman, but Covid-19 fears and isolation have added an extra strain. It feels like it is all behind us now, but viruses like Covid-19 and flu can spread more easily in winter when we all mix more indoors, so healthcare experts are advising expectant mums to make sure they get their vaccines.
Over a million babies were born in the UK during the height of the pandemic. We talked to three mums about their decisions on vaccination and experiences of having a baby during the pandemic.
“I was lucky enough to have my baby in the latter part of the pandemic,” says Paediatrician and mum of three Dr Kiran Rahim, “Lots of things felt weird and strange at a time of happiness, like my husband not being allowed in for a scan. Many services like drop-in weight clinics and breastfeeding support were cancelled due to Covid restrictions. The worst part was the lack of contact with health visitors.”
“I had my two Covid vaccines and then a booster and a flu jab while pregnant”, says Dr Rahim. “And as a frontline healthcare worker, I am eligible for Covid-19 booster and flu jab this winter which I have just had, whilst still breastfeeding. Both immunisations are safe at any stage of pregnancy, and many millions of doses have been administered worldwide to pregnant women.”
While the vaccines are safe, there are risks from both viruses during pregnancy.
“Complications from Covid and flu while pregnant can be very dangerous for both mother and baby. In the very worst cases, they can lead to death or stillbirth,” says Dr Rahim. “There are new variants of Covid all the time, it’s unpredictable and the risks are still out there. The flu virus can also change each year, so it’s important to boost your protection to both viruses before winter.”
“This is not the time to be complacent,” says Dr Rahim. Falling ill presents additional risks while pregnant. Vaccines are our best line of defence, which are freely available on the NHS and easy to get.
Unfortunately, trainee clinical scientist Tanviha Quaraishi-Akhtar experienced some of these complications first-hand. Tanviha had an emergency C-section after falling seriously ill with Covid, giving birth at just 33 weeks. She was so unwell with Covid that she couldn’t hold her premature son before he was rushed to the neonatal intensive care unit.
“Just a week later, I was in ICU alone, in a medically induced coma. I almost died and was kept unconscious for over two months. I finally met and held my son when he was 12 weeks old. It is so sad to think I missed out on these important early months. Had the vaccine been available whilst I was pregnant, I would have definitely accepted it, and my experience could have been avoided”.
As a scientist, Tanviha believes it’s so important for people in the Asian community to make sure they get their information about vaccines from a reliable source like the NHS website – there’s far too much misinformation out there and you shouldn’t trust everything you read on social media.
“I got the Covid vaccine while pregnant last year, and I’d do it again,” says influencer and blogger Samira Ahmed. “I was really sick with the Delta variant in my first trimester and was lethargic for months after recovering. I was so worried that getting sick had harmed my baby. I wanted to avoid catching it again and got vaccinated – it was a load off my mind.”
Samira also makes sure her four-year-old gets the flu vaccine as a nasal spray. “I don’t want him to miss out on school and vaccines make these things avoidable.” I also had him vaccinated each autumn when he was a pre-schooler.
A UK study found that pregnant women admitted to hospital with Covid infection having received 2 or 3 vaccine doses, were less likely to have more severe disease or require intensive care admission than women who had not been vaccinated. However, uptake of vaccines is lower in Asian communities – last winter for example, just 29% of Pakistani pregnant women had the flu jab.
Studies show that protection provided by Covid-19 vaccines decreases over time, even if you’ve had previous doses of the vaccine. So, it’s important you ‘top up’ your immunity this autumn. Pregnancy alters how the body handles infections such as flu, which is why you are advised to get the flu vaccine too. It’s safe to get both vaccines together. They do not contain live viruses and cannot infect the baby.
Find out how to book your vaccine appointments now at your GP surgery, local pharmacy or check with your maternity service. Visit nhs.uk/wintervaccinations