Year after year, influenza leads to 250,000 deaths at minimum. On the worst of years, as many as a million people will die from the infection. Pregnant women and young children have the highest risk of becoming very ill due to complications, which can quickly lead to death.
The problem is worst within developing countries around the globe, where health care isn’t always accessible and medical facilities are often under-staffed and under-sourced. Influenza is very dangerous for infants because there are currently no approved vaccinations for children under the age of six months.
A new study conducted by researchers at the University Of Maryland School Of Medicine’s Center for Vaccine Development (or CVD) in Baltimore and the Center for Vaccine Development of Mali (also known as CVD-Mali) has shown that mothers who are immunized against the flu can decrease their child’s risk of getting the virus by about 70%. This is especially important during the first four months of a child’s life. This particular study is the largest that has been able to show that not only are vaccinations against influenza feasible, but they are also extremely effective in all parts of the world.
The study is the biggest to date to take a deep glance at vaccinations for pregnant women in order to protect newborn infants from the flu. This is also the first time anyone has been able to determine just how long this protection lasts and a direct correlation between the antibodies of mothers and those in their infants. Such vaccinations are common in the industrial world but not often used in developing countries. Developing countries could greatly benefit in this change of practice, especially in locations such as West Africa and Mali. Mali has extremely high rates of both maternal and infant mortality.
Lead author of the trial, Milagritos D. Tapia says most pregnant women in Mali are already given a tetanus vaccine during pregnancy to prevent both the newborn and mother from the bacterial disease during child birth. He says since this already exists, all that is needed is an addition of the flu vaccination during the same doctor visit.
All research for the study was conducted in Bamako, Mali in West Africa. Co-lead author Samba O. Sow says conducting research at that particular location was important because Mali is one of the poorest countries in the world. However, the country has pioneered new vaccinations for meningitis, pneumonia and severe gastroenteritis.
Researchers studied 4,193 pregnant women, half which received flu vaccines, the other half were given vaccinations for meningitis. Scientists closely observed the women’s children from birth until they hit the six month mark. The group which was treated for the flu had a vaccine efficacy of almost 70% at four months, and 57% at five months.
Senior author Myron M. Levine calls the results an important early step toward implementing maternal immunization against influenza to protect newborn babies. He calls the results impressive but says a lot more needs to be done. Researchers must complete a much larger scale study in order to measure the impact on more severe forms of influenza that in many cases lead to hospitalization and death.
Keith Klugman, Director for Pneumonia at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation says the new data proves maternal immunization is both safe and effective. This research could save many lives within the poorest places around the world that simply do not have the health care so many others in the world have quick access to and take for granted every day.
The official and complete study was published this week in the Lancet Infectious Diseases journal.