Date: June 24 2012
THOUSANDS of mothers will be surveyed over the next four years in a landmark study to find out whether the flu vaccine can help protect babies from the virus in their first year of life.
Women will fill out a survey after giving birth and will be interviewed by telephone when their child is six months old to compare the health of newborns with mothers who were vaccinated in the previous year with those whose mothers were not.
Six universities - including the University of Melbourne - have begun recruiting 10,000 pregnant women at hospitals, maternity units and clinics in Melbourne, Sydney, Darwin, Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth for the ''Flumum'' study, which is an Australian first and the largest of its kind in the world. An equivalent US study found that flu vaccines could help immunise babies under six months old but surveyed only about 300 mothers over a shorter time, and did not follow up on every child after birth.
Among children, babies younger than 12 months were most likely to contract influenza, said Professor Terry Nolan, head of Melbourne University's Murdoch Children's Research Institute and School of Population Health. But the flu vaccine is only licensed for children older than a year. ''[The study will] tell us [if] there's a benefit in the most vulnerable group for which we have no current intervention available,'' Professor Nolan said. ''We already know what the benefits are for the mother … [but] it adds weight to the argument that it's a good thing for pregnant women to be vaccinated against flu for themselves and also for their babies.''
The study, funded by the National Health and Medical Research Council, also aims to uncover reasons why women choose to be vaccinated.
The national immunisation handbook, written by the advisory group that Professor Nolan chairs, has recommended for the past decade that pregnant women be vaccinated for flu. But only 30 to 40 per cent of pregnant women take the vaccine, compared with about 10 per cent before the H1N1 flu pandemic in 2009.
Kate Littlejohn was one of the first mothers to take the survey after giving birth to her first child, James, six weeks ago. Ms Littlejohn, a nurse, has a flu shot every year because her immune system was weakened after she had her spleen removed at 13.
She was initially unsure about the impact the flu vaccine would have on her baby, but was later immunised during her pregnancy. ''Then my doctor told me how important it was for pregnant women,'' she said.
''In pregnancy your immune system's a bit suppressed anyway. It became even more important for me so that I maintained my health to look after my baby.''
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