Ministry warns: Flu can cause stillbirths, premature births

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

Dr Adesh Sirjusingh, Director of Women’s Health. –

Contracting seasonal influenza (flu) may not seem like a big deal for many, especially the young and healthy.

However, for certain groups, it can be life-threatening or cause unwanted complications like stillbirths or premature births. It’s why the Ministry of Health is once again hoping to vaccinate the population now that flu season has begun – especially those in high-risk groups.

In an interview with Newsday at the Ministry of Health’s new head office, the director of the Directorate of Women’s Health, Dr Adesh Sirjusingh, said much as with covid19, pregnant women fall into this group.

“What they’ve found (is), if you’re infected with the flu virus, then they actually have a higher risk of hospitalisation, ending up in ICU or die – that’s a worldwide risk,” Sirjusingh said.

“Specific to pregnancy, it increases your risk to your baby being born before time – that’s premature birth. It also increases the risk of stillbirths as well…again, from previous experience, from international studies and publications we found that the act of vaccination significantly reduces the risk of ending up that way.”

While he did not have the numbers before him at the time, he noted there have previously been “several deaths” locally.

Sirjusingh said the vaccine can be safely taken during all three trimesters of pregnancy and even by breastfeeding mothers. In addition to drives at all health centres nationwide, the vaccine is being offered at all antenatal and post-natal clinics. He said mothers who are vaccinated can pass immunity to their babies, especially through breast milk, and this is important as the vaccine isn’t approved for babies under six months old.

Dr Maria Clapperton, head of the Non-Communicable Disease (NCD) programme, said people with comorbid conditions also fall into this group and need to get their flu shots. These include children between six months and five years old, those over 60, those with diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular diseases, those who have had heart attacks, strokes or cancer, and people with chronic respiratory illnesses like asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

A release from the Ministry of Health also advised healthcare workers to get the shot.

Clapperton noted that while the vaccines may not prevent someone from getting infected, they reduce the risk of severe illness requiring hospitalisation or even death. She said someone who has the flu would experience stronger symptoms than someone with the common cold.

“This why persons in these categories, we encourage them to take the vaccine,” she said.

Flu season in TT is considered to run between October and May annually, peaking between December and February as people visit and socialise for the holidays and carnival.

Manager of the Ministry of Health’s Expanded Programme on Immunization Grace Sookchan warned that with covid19 public health restrictions removed, this season could witness higher rates of infection than in recent years.

“Now we’re back to basically normal, and as you can see, most of us are not wearing masks. You would have had a rise in terms of persons circulating, not following the public health measures. We also have an increase in travels and back and forth between TT and the international borders, so we expect that we may have a rise in cases,” she said.

Sirjusingh noted that those who received a shot last season will need another one this year, because the vaccines are updated annually to account for the different strains of influenza which may be circulating.

Soochan said the 75,000 vaccines conform to World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines and were procured through the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO). Newsday was told the doses cost US$5.50 each, giving a total cost of US$412,500, or TT$2.8 million. Should there be significant uptake, she said, there is the possibility of acquiring additional doses.

The flu vaccine is now available at all health centres nationwide, and public drives will begin on October 16. While there’s an emphasis on those in the high-risk groups to get vaccinated, any member of the public can take it.

Ministry of Health data given to Newsday showed there were 51 flu deaths in 2019, out of 286 cases. No deaths were recorded in 2020 and 2021, and 2022 saw five fatalities from 950 cases.