Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

A Mother’s Gift: Vaccinating Mom Can Protect Baby Too

September 03, 2014

A mother gives her newborn many gifts to have a healthy start to life: she provides food, she provides care, and offers an endless supply of love. A mother also gives a gift that is special because it can come only from her – immunity against deadly diseases. During pregnancy, a mother shares her immunity with her newborn, whose own immune system is not yet fully formed and needs time to develop.

We are learning more about a mother’s gift of immunity, and that there are simple ways to help mom increase the chances for baby to have a healthy start. New research – including a study from South Africa published today in the New England Journal of Medicine – suggests that making sure mothers receive essential vaccines during pregnancy is a powerful gift to newborns. The protection that vaccines provide mom can be transferred to baby.

 The protection that vaccines provide mom can be transferred to baby.

The South Africa study was conducted by the University of the Witwatersrand and focused on influenza, or flu. Influenza is a major health concern for both newborns and pregnant mothers, who are at heightened risk for serious illness and death due to flu. The study found that providing flu vaccines to mothers while they were pregnant was safe and helped protect mom from getting sick. Critically, the mother’s protection against flu was gifted to her newborn, who was also protected.

These findings corroborate results from previous research in Bangladesh, and support recommendations from the World Health Organization that pregnant mothers be prioritized for flu vaccines. The foundation provided support to the South Africa and Bangladesh studies, and is supporting companion research underway in Mali and Nepal. Altogether more than 10,000 moms and their babies will participate in this important research.

Conducting studies in different populations and geographies allows us to learn additional things in each place. For example, the South Africa study was able to evaluate whether the flu vaccine was safe and effective in mothers regardless of HIV status. This is a key consideration because HIV is a serious health problem in the country.

Vaccinating mom to protect baby is a novel solution to the long-standing challenge of reducing neonatal mortality. Flu vaccine was not developed for newborns and is not approved for children younger than 6 months of age. Research is needed to evaluate the safety and effectiveness of a maternal immunization strategy to prevent other diseases of newborns, such as infections due to the Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV), whooping cough (Pertussis), the Group B Streptococcus (GBS) and Tetanus. These infections disproportionately affect neonates and are preventable by vaccines.

Every year, more than 3 million newborns die during their first four weeks of life, often from vaccine-preventable infections. Harnessing a mother’s gift to build children’s immunity is a promising strategy to save lives. Every child deserves a healthy start to life, and every mother deserves the chance to provide that start.

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