Advice on the safety of health immunisations and travel vaccination injections during pregnancy.
We are all born with some degree of protection against bacterial and viral infection. This immunity is passed onto us from our mother through the placenta as we develop in the womb and via breast milk - this is why breastfed babies tend to have stronger immune systems than bottle fed babies. However, this innate immunity does not protect us from all forms of infection.
When our bodies come into contact with a disease for the first time we produce white blood cells (or anti-bodies) specifically designed to fight the invading infection. Next time we come into contact with the infection our bodies will already have the protection in place to quickly fight the virus or bacteria and prevent it from spreading and causing harm.
Although we have the biological mechanisms in place to fight infection when it occurs, it can take several weeks for a sufficient number of suitable anti-bodies to be produced. In the mean time the infection can begin to spread and, depending on the type of infection, can cause illness, disability or even death. This is where vaccinations have their benefit.
A vaccination to a particular disease involves exposing the body to a tiny amount of the dangerous bacteria or virus so as to elicit the development of responsive white blood cells. This means that when you are exposed to the disease in the real world your body has the appropriate immune response already prepared so that effects of the infection are minimised.
You are likely to have been vaccinated against many dangerous diseases during your childhood, however it is a good idea to check whether you are up to date with your immunisation schedule with your doctor, ideally before you fall pregnant. It is especially important that you are immunised against rubella as this disease can be incredibly debilitating to the development of a fetus if the mother contracts the disease during pregnancy.
Types of Vaccinations
There are two main categories of immunisation; active vaccinations and passive vaccinations.
Active, or live vaccinations involve tiny amounts of a disease being injected into the body in order to elicit an immune response. Examples of live vaccines include yellow fever, MMR, BCG and the oral forms of polio and typhoid. These are generally not advisable during pregnancy as there is a small chance that the fetus will be exposed to the live form of the disease.
Passive vaccines either involve exposure to a dead strain of the disease or artificially produced anti-bodies. Examples of passive vaccines include those given for Tetanus and Flu (influenza). Passive vaccines pose little threat to fetal development and so can often be taken during pregnancy.
Recommendations for pregnancy
Although live vaccines are not generally recommended during pregnancy, in some instances the risk presented to both mother and fetus by exposure to the disease is far greater than that associated with immunisation. For example. travel to a country where a certain disease is prevalent, risk of contraction is high and the symptoms of the disease are serious. i.e. malaria or yellow fever.
If possible, travel to high risk countries during pregnancy should be avoided. However, if you do decide to visit a country where a vaccinable disease is prevalent, your doctor will be able to advise you as to whether the potential risks associated with vaccination are outweighed by the risk and outcome of the disease.
Despite the fact that many vaccinations are not recommended during pregnancy, for the majority there is little evidence that maternal exposure is detrimental to fetal development. Consequently, if you received a vaccination in early pregnancy you should not be overly concerned. However, as always it is best to seek advice from you GP if you have any questions.
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