ABU DHABI // Large numbers of pregnant women are ignoring medical advice to take the swine flu vaccine because they wrongly fear damaging side-effects. Although the H1N1 vaccine has been available to expectant mothers in Abu Dhabi for two months, many clinics say that only a handful have come forward to take the drug, which is now safe for women at any stage of their pregnancy.
Health officials blame concerns about side effects and limited knowledge of the vaccine, but say some doctors are not doing enough to promote it. Earlier this month, the Health Authority-Abu Dhabi (HAAD) called for all pregnant women to take the vaccine to protect their babies, listing clinics, hospitals and health centres across the country where the vaccine was being administered free. Pregnant women are one of the groups most vulnerable to the disease.
"In line with the H1N1 national vaccination strategy and according to priority groups, the HAAD encourages all pregnant women to take the vaccine to avoid complications that may result from catching the H1N1 flu," said Zaid al Siksek, the chief executive of HAAD. Some clinics, however, have reported a noticeable absence of pregnant women willing to roll up their sleeves. Nurse Lorna Lara at the Disease Prevention and Screening Centre (DPSC) in the capital, one of the clinics authorised by HAAD to carry the vaccine for pregnant women, said only one woman had been vaccinated at the clinic.
"We have had some pregnant women come to the clinic to ask about the vaccine, but they were just asking," said Ms Lara. "HAAD specified that all pregnant women have to come with a referral letter from their doctor to get vaccinated and none of the women knew that, so the very few that came to ask didn't even get vaccinated." The DPSC has had the Pandemrix form of the vaccine, produced by GlaxoSmithKline, since November. This vaccine can be given to pregnant women only after more than 20 weeks of gestation, which is why a referral letter or prescription is needed from a doctor.
Recently, however, a new vaccine, Panenza, produced by Sanofi, has been made available in Abu Dhabi. "The Panenza vaccine is safe for children and for women at any stage of pregnancy," Ms Lara said. "Pandemrix was given to the Haj pilgrims when they were being vaccinated and now is being used for health care professionals." Panenza was distributed throughout Abu Dhabi on January 5, and HAAD immediately issued a clear statement to pregnant women: "Vaccines have proven benefits. Receiving the H1N1 vaccine is the single best way to protect people from contracting an H1N1 infection. The dangers from H1N1 influenza disease are many times greater for pregnant women than the risk of a serious reaction to the vaccine."
Two of the six known deaths attributed to swine flu in the UAE were women in the later stages of pregnancy, while the World Health Organisation (WHO) says expectant mothers are ten times more likely to be admitted intensive care with virus than the general population. The Bain al Jesrain Health Centre also reports dismal numbers of pregnant women receiving vaccinations only two, according to Mona Abdelrahman, a nurse. "I think the reason is that women are not well-educated about the vaccine, and are afraid for themselves and their babies," she said. "Doctors need to take the time to tell their pregnant patients how important the vaccine is for them, and direct them to us."
At the Corniche Hospital in Abu Dhabi, 77 pregnant women have been vaccinated with Pandemrix since November 21. "Not a single one has come back to us reporting any kind of side effect or problem," said Dr Aleyzabathu Philip, an obstetrician and gynecologist at the Corniche Hospital for the past 30 years. The facility now offers the Panenza vaccine as well. What pregnant women need to understand, said Dr Philip, is that the vaccine could save their lives, and the lives of their babies. "How can they not take the vaccine once we make that clear? We have even been vaccinating women that are trying to get pregnant, because any woman who has had the vaccine has gone on to have normal pregnancies."
Shaimaa Dweek from Egypt, who is expecting a baby boy any day, was convinced by her doctor to have the vaccine. "At first I was completely against it, thinking there was a very big chance it would harm me and my baby, but once it is explained by a doctor, you realise that the risk lies in not taking the vaccine," said Mrs Dweek. Lubna Hussain, however, whose third baby is due in March, adamantly refuses to even consider taking it. "I don't know very much about it, but you hear so many rumours about how it can harm you, or make you go into shock; I don't want to risk it," she said. Like Mrs Hussain, Tanya al Mughrabi from Jordan has also made no efforts to get vaccinated or ask about the H1N1 vaccine.
"No one ever mentioned anything to me," said Mrs al Mughrabi, who is due in May. "I will ask my doctor about it and see." But Meera Patel, expecting her baby on February 13, had no qualms about being vaccinated at the Corniche Hospital. She had a friend in India who contracted swine flu soon after delivering her baby, and was put in a separate ward from the newborn for seven days. "It's my first pregnancy and I would feel safer knowing that I was vaccinated against the risk of swine flu," she said, adding that the only side effect she experienced was mild pain at the injection site.
She urged other mothers to get the vaccine. "They should speak to their doctors so they can see that they have to take the chance; it's the smart choice." email@example.com