Expectant mothers who have the winter flu jab slash their chance of having a stillbirth by more than half, a major study has found.
Researchers found that women who had been recently vaccinated against flu were 51 per cent less likely to have a stillbirth than women who were unvaccinated.
The study of nearly 60,000 births strengthens the case for pregnant women to be vaccinated against the virus.
The NHS offers free flu vaccine to all pregnant women, along with the elderly and those with conditions such as asthma and diabetes.
But uptake among expectant mothers is low and falling, with only 42 per cent of pregnant women in England getting the jab last winter [2015/16], down from 44 per cent the winter before.
Doctors have urged women to have the jab because it reduces the risk of complications including premature birth, and low birth weight.
Pregnant women who have the flu vaccine cut their risk of stillbirth by half
The vaccine also protects the baby against flu for the first few months of its life.
But the new study, led by the University of Western Australia, provides evidence that the jab also protects against the tragedy of stillbirth.
The team analysed data from nearly 58,000 births that occurred during the Australian winters of 2012 and 2013.
They found that the chance of stillbirth – which they defined as a death after 20 weeks of pregnancy – was 51 per cent lower among vaccinated women.
The scientists think that this might be because flu might increase the risk of stillbirth – a factor which doctors had not previously considered.
They found that stillbirth rates increased after flu outbreaks and decreased during the months prior to the influenza season, supporting this theory.
The scientists, writing in the Clinical Infections Diseases journal, said: ‘Several findings in our study support an association between influenza infection and stillbirth.
‘The observed rate of stillbirth was higher following periods of influenza virus circulation compared with periods prior to influenza season.’
They added: ‘These results may be useful for communicating the potential benefits of seasonal influenza vaccination to pregnant mothers and their providers.
‘Given the growing body of evidence supporting the health benefits to mother and infant, concerted efforts are needed to improve seasonal influenza vaccine coverage among pregnant women.’
Having a flu vaccine cuts the chance of stillbirth by 51 per cent, a study of nearly 60,000 births has found. The vaccine also protects the baby against flu for the first few months of its life
The team first came upon their theory after the pandemic of swine flu, or H1N1 virus, seven years ago, when mass vaccination against viruses resulted in a drop in stillbirths.
Study author Annette Regan of the Western Australia Department of Health, said: ‘During the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, we saw a reduction in stillbirths following vaccination.
‘Our results are particularly exciting since they show we can get the same protection during seasonal epidemics, which occur every winter.
‘Unfortunately, we know that about 40 percent of pregnant women go unvaccinated, missing out on these benefits.
‘I’m hoping results like these can convince more pregnant women to get vaccinated each year.’
Pregnancy puts women at an increased risk of developing serious complications related to influenza, including acute respiratory distress syndrome and pneumonia.
But doctors are worried that concern for the safety of the baby dissuades some expectant mothers from vaccination.
The new study’s findings also support the safety of flu vaccination during pregnancy.
The number of British stillborn babies has declined in recent years, with 3,286 stillborn babies in the UK in 2013 – about one in every 240 births.
But Britain still has one of the highest stillbirth rates in the developed world, ranked 21st out of 35 of the world’s wealthy and developed nations.
Dr Richard Pebody, head of flu surveillance for Public Health England, said: ‘These study results are promising and point to the well-known fact that the flu vaccine provides both pregnant women and their new born babies with important protection.
‘We encourage more research to be undertaken to corroborate the findings of this study.
‘Public Health England recommends that pregnant women get the flu vaccination to protect themselves and their baby.
‘Studies show that the flu vaccine is safe during any stage of pregnancy, from the first few weeks up to your expected due date.
‘The flu vaccine provides protection to the mothers while pregnant, but also to their babies – protection which lasts for the first few months of their lives.’
Flu rates have increased unexpectedly in recent weeks, with the number of patients seeing their GP with symptoms is at a five-year high for this time of year.
Experts are not sure why flu rates are suddenly increasing, admitting the ‘dynamics’ of the virus are highly unpredictable. Usually it arrives in November or December, peaks in January and has almost disappeared by the end of March. But this year rates have steadily climbed since early January and then suddenly soared in the past few weeks.
Louise Silverton, director for midwifery at The Royal College of Midwives, said: ‘This latest study is really good news and shows how important the flu vaccine can be for pregnant women, it also adds to an existing body of evidence of the benefits for women who are vaccinated during pregnancy.
‘If caught, flu can be very, very serious for the mother and baby. The vaccine is effective for many people and it is certainly more effective than not having the vaccine.
‘We strongly recommend that pregnant women have the flu vaccination to protect themselves and their baby from the effects of flu.’