H1N1 and Pregnant Women

10.27.09 How scary is it really?


You can’t turn on your computer, television or radio these days without hearing about the H1N1 flu virus. It’s the number one news headline and perfect fodder for keeping 24-hour news coverage burning; and for good reason. The flu is scary stuff. With words like pandemic and state of emergency being used, this year, it feels even scarier. But is H1N1 worse than any other flu? At best it makes one feel like a dog’s dinner for a week. At worst, flu complications can require hospitalization and at the extreme end of that spectrum, cause death.

Fit Pregnancy has been compiling all the current information about H1N1, vaccinations, basic prevention and recovery tips. I wrote about the flu last spring when we were just catching wind of H1N1. What can I add to that? Reassurance. Most people aren’t going to find themselves at the extreme end of the flu spectrum. Yes, people are pouring into emergency rooms but most of them are more frightened than anything. After a day hanging around a crowded waiting room filled with other sick people, they get sent home with common sense advice to rest, drink fluids and stay home from work. If you get this flu, you’re far more likely to fall in the dog’s dinner category than the intensive care unit. Flu is serious and I recommend you do everything to avoid it but the vast majority of people are going to be OK. I recognize this is a less newsworthy perspective than the one that screams “You’re all going down from H1N1,” but by now, many of you have gotten used to me saying, “let’s calm down, shall we?

I don’t downplay the fear many are feeling about H1N1. We’ve developed a global anxiety based on dire warnings and messages of doom that are at the foundation of much of the media’s flu coverage. Getting the flu (any flu) feels awful. We’re dealing with it at my house and nobody’s happy about it. But let’s be sensible here. This is the flu, not the Ebola virus.

As of this writing, 1000 people have died of H1N1. The Centers for Disease Control tell us however, that approximately 36,000 people die of “regular” seasonal flu every year. What makes this flu particularly scary is that it’s new and spreading quickly. And yet, compared to other influenza viruses in years past, many people are saying it’s not any worse.

I live in a state that’s been hit pretty hard. Many kids in my children’s school district are out with presumed H1N1. Doctor’s aren’t testing but tell us it’s the only bug going around. Most kids haven’t gotten vaccinated because the vaccine hasn’t been available. They’ve felt really puny for a week, with fever, cough, headache and body aches, sore throats and the occasional upset stomach. And then they’ve recovered and gone back to school. They’re fine now.

Pregnant women will hear that it’s worse for them if they get H1N1. Here are the numbers: As of August 2009 pregnant women comprise 1 percent of the population, yet 6 percent of deaths from H1N1 have been among pregnant women. Yes, that’s a scary percentage but let’s flip it and look at it another way. 99% of the people diagnosed with H1N1 aren’t pregnant women. The H1N1 virus isn’t targeting pregnant women. Since pregnant women usually get frequent medical care, it’s possible more are getting diagnosed simply because they’re seeing a doctor more regularly than the rest of us. Pregnant women are more likely to get harder hit and to experience complications than the non-pregnant population. That’s the way it is with any flu or cold. When we’re pregnant, our immune system is busy protecting and growing a baby and doesn’t provide as much armor for moms as when we’re not pregnant. It’s an unfair fact of life that isn’t exclusive to H1N1.

My take home message is this: Talk to your healthcare provider about vaccination, anti-viral medication and prevention tips. Then, take a deep breath and follow the common sense health guidelines we always recommend: plenty of rest, fluids, good food, exercise and regular prenatal care. I’m sending all my best thoughts your way that none of you get this or any flu but if you do, calm down, call your doctor and know that in a week or so, you’re more than likely going to be fine.

Jeanne Faulkner, R.N., lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband and five children. Got a question for Jeanne? E-mail it to labornurse@fitpregnancy.com and it may be answered in a future blog post.

This Fit Pregnancy blog is intended for educational purposes only. It is not intended to replace medical advice from your physician. Before initiating any exercise program, diet or treatment provided by Fit Pregnancy, you should seek medical advice from your primary caregiver.