(ABC News)–When Aubrey Opdyke was pregnant with her second child in 2009, she didn't get a flu shot.
It wasn't because she was afraid of vaccines or because she doesn't
believe in them. She just didn't think anything of it, she said.
In June, Opdyke came down with the flu –
a low grade fever and a cough – but a week later, it landed her in the
hospital where she would fight for her life in a medically induced coma
and eventually deliver her baby at just 27 weeks. The baby, Parker
Christine Opdyke, only lived for seven minutes.
“It didn't hit people like it hit pregnant women,” Opdyke said of the
2009 swine flu pandemic, which hospitalized her for three months. “I
just never even thought about being vaccinated. It wasn't even an issue
back then.” She said her doctor didn't push her to get a flu shot.
But this flu season, the World Health Organization said
pregnant women should be given top priority for flu vaccinations,
putting them above the elderly, children and people with chronic health
Pregnant women are considered especially vulnerable to the flu because
their immune systems are slightly depressed to accommodate the growing
fetus, doctors say. The mother's body does this so her immune won't
attack the unborn baby, which includes foreign DNA.
“They're not more likely to get it, but if they get it, they're more
likely to have severe morbidity or actually die from it,” said Dr. Jon
Abramson, a pediatrician at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in North
When the immune system is down, the mother's body can't fight the flu
off as easily, Abramson said. It can then escalate and result in
pneumonia and other health problems. Even if the flu doesn't result in
hospitalization, the baby is more likely to have a low birth weight or
be born premature, especially if the mother gets the flu in the third
For Opdyke, she had a 99- or 100-degree fever and a cough for a week.
Her doctor told her to take Tylenol and prescribed an antibiotic, but
she began to behave erratically. Her husband was concerned and took her
to the hospital, where doctors learned she had extremely low oxygen
levels and her lungs were full of fluid.
Doctors intubated Opdyke to get her more oxygen, but she fought it, so
they put her in a coma, she said. Through the three-month hospital stay,
Opdyke's lungs collapsed six times. She developed pneumonia and acute
respiratory distress syndrome.
When Opdyke's kidneys started to shut down five weeks into the induced coma, doctors had to deliver baby Parker early.
“The flu gets your body so depleted of everything that everything else can come and break you down even more,” Opdyke said.
Although doctors have recommended the flu vaccine to pregnant women for
decades, the 2009 pandemic got people's attention. According to a WHO report,
pregnant women in New York City were 7.2 times more likely to be
hospitalized for influenza than non-pregnant women during the 2009 swine
Since then, Opdyke has gotten a flu shot every year, including the year she was pregnant with her baby boy, Braden.
Lori Wolfe, who directs the Texas Teratogen Information Service
Pregnancy Risk Line, said more women call her because they are afraid of
getting the flu shot, not the flu. Since 2009, Wolfe and her colleagues have made it a practice to always recommend the flu shot to callers.
“When women are pregnant, there's some concern about anything entering
their system. The thought of having to get a vaccination alone is scary
to a lot of them,” Wolfe said, adding that they usually understand why
it's important to get one after the teratologist explains flu risks to
Abramson said there's no way to get the flu from a flu shot (not the
nasal spray) because the virus inside the shot is dead. Even once the
baby is born, the mother's flu antibodies are passed to the baby through
the placenta and protect him or her for up to six months. By then, the
baby can get a flu shot, too.
Opdyke said pregnant women should get new vaccines as soon as they are
available in the fall because their 8-month-old vaccines won't help them
in a few flu season. In her opinion, the fear pregnant women feel about
vaccines is nothing compared to what she went through without one, and
she hopes women realize that flu shots aren't just hype.
“The other fear is being dead,” she said. “It bothers me when there are
moms out there that say 'No, no, no, never, never, never.' It's almost a
slap in my face. I went through a lot.”
Wolfe said a woman can get a flu vaccine at any time during her
pregnancy. Other than the risk of miscarriage or premature birth if the
mother is severely sick, a fever above 102 degrees presents the biggest
developmental hazards to the fetus.
Copyright 2012 by ABC News