Scared of Ebola? This Is a Bigger Risk

The news may be filled with Ebola stories, but the flu is a bigger threat to pregnant women and babies.

Flu Is a Bigger Risk Than Ebola for Moms and Babies

Of course, Ebola is a frightening disease—so much so, in fact, that the subject has literally hijacked the news. Thankfully, everyone from President Obama and Mark Zuckerberg to many other countries has stepped up to help stop Ebola from spreading further. However, medical experts agree that we're blowing our risk way out of proportion in the United States and ignoring very real illnesses that pose much greater threats right now. "The chances of getting the flu as compared to getting Ebola are astronomically higher; they're not even in the same ballpark," says Michael Jhung, M.D., a medical officer in the influenza division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta. "If you're worried about Ebola, looking it up online and obsessing over every news story about it, you're better off taking all of that energy and focusing it on protecting yourself and your family against the flu instead."

The flu, which is now at epidemic levels in the U.S., is caused by influenza viruses that infects the respiratory tract. It sweeps in every year between October and May and, on average, affects tens of millions of people, sending about 200,000 to the hospital and claiming between 3,000 and 50,000 lives in this country. (In comparison, there have been three confirmed cases of Ebola reported in the U.S. during this current outbreak.) Anyone can get the flu and most people have mild symptoms, but certain parts of the population have a particularly high risk of having serious complications from it: This includes pregnant women and young children. In fact, pregnant women alone accounted for almost 25 percent of all people hospitalized from flu-related symptoms last year, says Dr. Jhung.

The good news is that with the flu vaccination we have an effective way to protect ourselves from the illness—and experts especially advise that pregnant women and children take advantage of it. Here's what you need to know:

Pregnant Women

When to get the flu shot: As soon as it's available in your area. While the nasal spray is an option for many people, it's not recommended for pregnant women. They should stick with the flu shot instead.

Benefits for the mom: While most people should get vaccinated, experts strongly recommend that groups that are at a higher risk do so because they are more likely to have severe outcomes from having the flu, including more hospitalizations and fatalities. "The physiological toll of being pregnant can overwhelm the body's defenses," explains Dr. Jhung. "The woman's immune system is already being overtaxed because she's taking care of two people instead of one, so if she's battling an illness such as the flu it can be that much more difficult for her to recover." Also, any serious illness in an expectant mother can cause complications with the fetus, even premature labor and delivery.

Benefits for the baby: When a pregnant woman gets vaccinated, she's not only protecting herself. Her body will start to make antibodies which, in turn, can get transferred to the fetus in utero and protect the baby against the flu for up to six months after she's born. That added protection is especially important because the baby won't be able to get vaccinated herself until she's 6 months old. Also, it's especially important for an expecting or new mom—let alone the father and any other family members who will come into considerable contact with the infant—to get vaccinated so that they are less likely to get the flu and, in turn, pass it along to the baby once he arrives.

Possible side effects: Experts have proven the flu shot safe for expectant moms and their unborn children, which is why pregnant women have been getting it for decades. It effectively reduces the risk of having the flu by half. While some people do experience side effects such as soreness, redness and/or swelling at the injection site, muscle achiness, headaches, nausea and slight fever, the benefits far outweigh any potential reactions.

Babies Six Months and Older

When to get the flu vaccine: As soon as the child turns 6 months old and the vaccine is available in your area. For their first dose (and in some other specific cases) she might need two doses separated by about a month—it depends on when your baby was born and which strains of the flu have been circulating. Children ages 9 and older will need only one shot per year. Talk to your pediatrician about what's the best regimen for your child.

A less painful option: Let's face it—a lot of children downright despise getting shots. The good news is that starting in the 2014-2015 flu season, the CDC recommends that healthy children between the ages of 2 and 8 receive the nasal spray vaccine when possible as long as they have no contraindications or other reasons not to receive it. (Children between 6 months and 2 years should still get the shot, while those 9 and older can get either the spray or the shot.) The spray may work better than the flu shot in young children, so talk to your child's doctor about whether it's right for your little one. However, if it's not readily available in your area, don't delay the vaccination—in that case, just stick with the shot. It's most important that your child is protected from the flu as early as possible each flu season.

Why it's so important: "Children, especially those under five, tend to have more severe complications from the flu than adults," says Dr. Jhung. "Their bodies are more fragile, and they haven't had the time to develop a complete immune system." In fact, an average of 20,000 children under the age of 5 are hospitalized due to the flu every year.