Valerie Gommon Midwife’s Blog

An update on Swine Flu and Pregnancy

Posted on: March 17, 2011

Valerie says: “I am NOT trying to convince you either way – the DoH strongly recommends that women have the flu vaccine, many women are cautious and have concerns – I am just trying to give you accurate information to facilitate your decision-making.  This article is a mixture of anecdotal evidence and research articles for you to follow up if you wish – it is necessarily quite “heavy” and at times frightening reading.  I wish you well in your decision-making.”—Final-171210-Advice-on-influenza-.aspx

The info below was written by a well respected researcher Angela Horn:

The problem with swine flu is that it appears to be affecting younger, previously healthy people with severe respiratory complications – it’s almost like seasonal flu plus an additional respiratory element.  In our small town, the brother of a local vicar died just before Christmas – in his late 40s, no existing health problems, and he had young children.  He went downhill very suddenly apparently.  We had a post on this list before from a mother who had swine flu so mildly she didn’t know she had it, but her baby died in utero as a result – what a shocking tragedy.  In contrast, when I search for ‘proven risks of swine flu immunisation’, I am struggling to find much hard evidence of known problems.  

Is there any evidence that the swine flu vaccine causes miscarriage?

There are a lot of women who were in the first trimester of pregnancy, had the swine flu vaccine, and then miscarried in the week or so afterwards.  I can understand how awful that would feel – I’ve had 3 miscarriages and each time was going over the past few weeks with a fine toothcomb, wanting to find a reason.  But in these cases of miscarriages following the vaccine – sadly there is a relatively high rate of first-trimester pregnancies which end in miscarriage, and there is very little evidence to suggest the vaccine was responsible.  If you are having your first pregnancy then estimates very, but you may have around a 1 in 5 risk of miscarriage.  If you’ve never had a miscarriage and have had a live baby before, then your risk of first-trimester miscarriage is still 1 in 10, and that is amongst women with a clinically-confirmed pregnancy. Those of us with a history of miscarriage have a 1 in 3 chance and rising with each m/c and with age.  From bitter experience I can say that strong sickness is little proof you won’t miscarry (my strongest sickness of all my 9 pregnancies, was the one where the baby died earliest – strong sickness indicates a healthy hormonal state but doesn’t tell you if your baby has chromosomal abnormalities). Even having a healthy heartbeat at 7 weeks, still appears to leave somewhere between 1 in 10 and 1 in 20 of those who won’t make it to 12 weeks. Even at the 11-12 week stage, about 3% of women who go for a scan, suspecting no problems, find that their baby has died. Therefore, even if you are in a low-risk group for miscarriage, and you have a flu jab in the first trimester, we would expect that a proportion of women would miscarry in the days and weeks after any vaccination, just by chance.  So finding a thousand stories on the internet of women who miscarried after the flu jab, is not evidence that the jab is related, unless every single woman who had the jab uneventfully, is also publishing her story and you can see that the vaccinated women have a higher rate of miscarriage.  I don’t want to disrespect people’s feelings, but there is a huge difference between finding a lot of stories from women who miscarried after having a jab, and having evidence of a link.  You might similarly find that 1 in 10 of women who’d been swimming in early pregnancy went on to have a miscarriage, but nobody’s worried about a link there.

Do we have any evidence on the safety of immunisations in pregnancy generally?

Anyway….  for me, the risks of the flu in pregnancy are known and confirmed, with massive evidence for them.  Even if you get flu with no complications, it’s still a horrible week or two.   But the concerns about the vaccine seem generally to be ‘unknown unknowns’.  All of the reviews I’ve looked at on PubMed say that no evidence of any harm has been found.  I know we’re all worried about 30 years down the line, but personally I couldn’t find anything to support that.  It is theoretically possible that this will turn out to be harmful – but is it **likely**?  If it was likely, I would expect that we would have some clues from women who had other vaccinations in pregnancy 30 years ago – OK it wasn’t routine then, but there have been other vaccinations.  For instance, in 1981 a registry was set up in the UK of women who were given MMR or rubella vaccinations while in early pregnancy, and it appears that no problems have arisen.  See

This article on immunisation in pregnancy has some refs which may be worth following up:

Here are the WHO articles on immunisation in pregnancy:

The HPA page on pregnancy and flu vaccine:

And a review on PubMed which might be a good starting point for exploration:

I had it last year, when pregnant.  I am sceptical  by nature, and not someone who immunises automatically – I used to be very anti vaccination in general, but have come round to being broadly in favour on a case-by-case basis, based on things like seeing whooping cough going round my children and those of my anti-vaccination friends ……  I found that the Dept of Health recommendations to immunise in this case were well supported by references and research, whereas most of the anti case seemed to be based on concerns about imms in general, plus the idea that this was a new vaccine.  But it’s no more ‘new’ than any seasonal flu vaccine, as far as I can see.  Flu strains vary so the vaccines vary year-on-year, but it looks like the basic bones of the swine flu vaccine are pretty much the same as any other flu vaccine.

I was rattled by the stat that pregnant women were 10x more likely to end up in Intensive Care with swine flu, and combined with the known increased risk of children developing schizophrenia when the mother caught any form of flu in pregnancy, I didn’t want to muck about.  I know that others have felt very differently!  I have had flu during one of my pregnancies and it was horrible. My sister-in-law was hospitalised with the same flu, while pregnant (caught off me 😦 ).  Also, one of my miscarriages was after a flu-like illness (probably Norovirus actually) and high fever is associated with miscarriage, so I did not want to take that risk again.

Here are some things I found helpful:

A New Scientist article, a general overview on swine flu.–it-has-been-rushed-through-tests-and-the-last-time-there-was-a-swine-flu-scare-the-vaccine-hurt-people-why-take-the-risk-to-prevent-mild-flu.html

With regard to the mercury content of the vaccination, one thing which surprised me was reading about the difference between Ethyl mercury and Methyl mercury.  We know that long-term exposure to mercury is dangerous and that methyl-mercury (the sort you find in low-energy lightbulbs….) stays in the body for ages.  However, the preservative used in vaccinations is Thiomersal/Thimerosal (spelling varies from UK to USA) and this is converted by the body to Ethyl mercury, which is rapidly excreted.  Something about this here:

I know there will be many other interpretations of all this, but you asked for personal opinions.  After I had the jab last year, I had a sore lump on my arm for a week but that was all.  I’ve had the seasonal flu jab (which includes swine flu) this year – not pregnant, but want to minimize the risk of getting flu and nobody being able to look after my 6 children, DH needing to work and all that.  No sore arm or anything else this time.  My best pal was planning to go for the seasonal flu jab too but didn’t get round to it.  She got flu, and has been in and out of hospital for the past month with secondary pneumonia and pleurisy. She’s a health-conscious, organic-eating, non-smoker.  I’ve been looking after her kids for much of the last month – a dose of true flu has had a real impact on her family. She’s been told it will be months before she’s fully recovered.  I am very, very aware of all the unknown **possible** risks from vaccination, but my personal perspective is that here we are weighing a possible, theoretical, rare and unlikely risk against a known, actual, quantifiable harm.  For some people, there will never, ever be enough evidence to reassure them that a particular vaccine is acceptably safe, but personally I think at some point you just have to take a view and weigh up the evidence you actually have, and not give disproportionate consideration to concerns about evidence that you think is missing. ‘We still don’t know enough about the risks’ is used by many people as an argument about homebirth, after all!


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