Pregnancy is a time of joy, anticipation, and for many, a time of heightened concern about health. There’s an increased awareness about what you eat, how you sleep, and what medications you take.
Vaccinations are often a topic of discussion during prenatal appointments, but questions abound. Are vaccines during pregnancy safe? Which vaccines are recommended? Do they protect the baby? Never to worry I have the answer you seek in this blog post.
Mechanism of action of vaccines
Before talking specifically about pregnancy, it’s useful to understand how vaccines generally work. Vaccines are designed to trigger an immune response by mimicking a specific virus or bacteria without causing the actual disease.
This “practice run” prepares your immune system to fight off the real thing should you be exposed to it in the future.
Understanding the mechanisms behind vaccines can empower you to make informed decisions about immunization, especially during special phases like pregnancy.
The human immune system is complex, but at its core, it’s essentially a defense mechanism designed to identify and neutralize foreign invaders such as viruses and bacteria. The immune system uses markers called “antigens” to recognize these foreign bodies. In response, it produces specialized proteins called “antibodies” that can neutralize the invading pathogens.
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Types of Vaccines
Vaccines come in different forms, but they all serve the same essential purpose: to introduce an antigen into the body in a controlled manner.
- Inactivated or Killed Vaccines: These contain viruses or bacteria that have been killed or inactivated so that they cannot cause disease. Examples include the polio and flu vaccines.
- Live Attenuated Vaccines: These contain a weakened form of the virus or bacteria that can still replicate but is unable to cause illness in healthy individuals. Examples are the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine.
- Subunit, Recombinant, or Conjugate Vaccines: These use only a fragment of the disease-causing virus or bacteria—often a protein or a sugar—to trigger an immune response. The HPV and whooping cough vaccines are examples.
- Messenger RNA (mRNA) Vaccines: These are a newer type of vaccine that teach cells how to make a protein that triggers an immune response. The COVID-19 vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna are examples.
Why Consider Vaccines During Pregnancy?
When you’re pregnant, your immune system undergoes changes that make you more susceptible to infections.
Some of these infections can be particularly severe during pregnancy and can even affect the fetus. Therefore, vaccinations can be an essential part of prenatal care.
What are vaccines during pregnancy for?
Some vaccines provide the added benefit of protecting not just the mother but also the baby. During pregnancy, antibodies from the mother can cross the placenta and provide the baby with passive immunity during the first few months of life.
When a pregnant woman is vaccinated, her immune system produces antibodies in response to the vaccine. These antibodies can then cross the placenta and enter the baby’s bloodstream, providing the baby with passive immunity against the diseases for which the mother was vaccinated.
This is particularly important for diseases like pertussis (whooping cough) and influenza, which can be very severe or even fatal for newborns and young infants.
Passive immunity from the mother can help protect the baby from these diseases until they are old enough to receive their own vaccinations and develop their own immunity. This is crucial because the baby’s immune system is still developing and is not as effective at fighting off infections as an adult’s immune system.
Reducing the Risk of Infection During Pregnancy
Certain infections contracted by the mother during pregnancy can be transmitted to the baby, either in utero or during childbirth, and can cause severe complications for the baby, including birth defects, developmental delays, and even death.
By getting vaccinated during pregnancy, the mother can reduce her risk of contracting these infections, and therefore also reduce the risk to her baby.
Protection After Birth
Some vaccines, like the Tdap vaccine (tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis), are recommended during pregnancy not only to protect the mother but also to provide the baby with protection after birth.
Pertussis, for example, is a highly contagious respiratory disease that can be particularly dangerous for newborns and young infants. By getting vaccinated during pregnancy, the mother can pass antibodies to the baby that will provide protection during the first few months of life, before the baby can receive their own pertussis vaccine.
Promoting Overall Health
Maintaining good health during pregnancy is essential for the well-being of both the mother and the baby. By getting vaccinated against preventable diseases, the mother can reduce her risk of becoming ill during pregnancy, which in turn reduces the risk of complications for the baby.
Common Vaccines Recommended During Pregnancy
The flu can be particularly dangerous for pregnant women due to changes in the immune system, heart, and lungs. The flu vaccine has been shown to be safe during pregnancy and can protect both the mother and the baby.
Tdap (Tetanus, Diphtheria, Pertussis)
The Tdap vaccine is recommended during every pregnancy, usually between the 27th and 36th weeks, to protect the newborn from pertussis, commonly known as whooping cough.
The COVID-19 vaccine was recommended for pregnant and breastfeeding women based on preliminary data showing it to be safe and effective for both the mother and baby.
Vaccines that you should not take while pregnant?
These vaccines are not recommended for pregnant women;
- Human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine
- Measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine
- Live influenza vaccine (nasal flu vaccine)
- Varicella (chicken pox) vaccine
- Certain travel vaccines: yellow fever, typhoid fever, and Japanese encephalitis
Note: these travel vaccines should generally not be given during pregnancy, unless your healthcare provider determines that the benefits outweigh the risks according to CDC.
Conclusion on Vaccines During Pregnancy
Vaccines can be an integral part of a healthy pregnancy, offering protection to both mother and baby. While most vaccines are considered safe during pregnancy, some are not considered safe.
Vaccinations during pregnancy offer several benefits to the baby, including providing passive immunity against certain diseases, reducing the risk of infection during pregnancy and childbirth, and promoting overall health.
As always, it’s important for pregnant women to have a discussion with their healthcare provider about which vaccines are recommended during pregnancy and to weigh the benefits and risks of each vaccine.
Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes only and should not be considered medical advice. Always consult with a qualified healthcare provider for personalized medical advice.