Government officials are continuing their public relations campaign to get us to care about the H1N1 virus (aka swine flu) without scaring us out of our wits. That has proven to be tricky: On Monday, the White House estimated that up to 90,000 Americans could die of swine flu this year. And today, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that children were at greatest risk of being infected with H1N1 (14 times more likely than adults over age 60) and that babies and toddlers were most likely to be hospitalized with severe complications.
At the same time, the CDC is telling us not to panic, with the agency director, Thomas Frieden, saying he doesn't believe the White House death estimates will prove accurate unless the virus mutates into a deadlier form. And this afternoon, the Department of Health and Human Services hosted a webcast to give pregnant women and new moms sensible advice—rather than scary news—about preparing for H1N1.
All of the government heavyweights, including HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, agreed that pregnant women and parents of newborns should do the following: Get a seasonal flu vaccination now, since it's currently available; get the H1N1 vaccine in mid-October when it first becomes available; and call the doctor immediately if they have signs of the flu, such as fever, chills, coughing, or a sore throat. "It's very important for pregnant women to take very seriously any respiratory infection," said Tony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Pregnant women, as I previously reported, are at much greater risk of developing severe complications from H1N1, especially during the last three months of pregnancy. The CDC recommends that infected pregnant women be treated with the antiviral drug Tamiflu.
Fauci also said that the government will begin testing the H1N1 vaccine in pregnant women in early September. Responding to E-mailed questions from women concerned about the vaccine's risks, he said: "This vaccine is made in the same way, by the same companies, using the same process as the seasonal flu vaccine that we've been giving every year to pregnant women." Trouble is, the vast majority of pregnant women still skip the seasonal flu vaccine, and, judging by the number of safety questions that were E-mailed in, I'm guessing government officials are concerned that they will shun the H1N1 shot as well. On the webcast, officials emphasized the clear risks H1N1 infections pose to pregnant women and newborns over the very rare and still unknown risks that a vaccine would pose. (It's thought that babies born to women who received the H1N1 shot during pregnancy will have immunity, since that's the case with the seasonal flu vaccine.) "These serious risks are so rare," Fauci said, "you'd never be able to pick them up in a clinical trial."
The government officials and healthcare providers on the webcast also emphasized frequent hand-washing—especially before breast-feeding. That last bit of advice was interesting to me because it's something I never thought to do when nursing my own three kids. While the H1N1 virus isn't transmitted via breast milk, a baby can become infected if a mom unwittingly spreads the virus from her hands to her breast before nursing, said Laura Riley, an obstetrician-gynecologist at Massachusetts General Hospital. Women don't need to stop breast-feeding if they have the swine flu, she added, provided they're up to caring for their newborn. (It may, though, be a good idea to wear a face mask.) They can also safely nurse while taking Tamiflu.
Other common-sense steps pregnant women and new moms can take now to lower their chances of getting infected before the vaccine becomes available? Avoid excess stress, eat a balanced diet, and make time for frequent naps, advised Tina Johnson, a nurse-midwife. Oh, and make sure your in-laws and parents are vaccinated if they're planning to help care for the new baby.