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Prenatal protection

University of Otago, Christchurch researcher Dr Tony Walls and colleagues are enabling the vaccination of pregnant women to prevent infectious diseases in their infants.

A paediatrician and infectious diseases expert, Walls and his fellow researchers have conducted the first New Zealand trial of a vaccine for pregnant women, aimed at protecting their infants against whooping cough – or pertussis.

Small international trials had found no apparent safety concerns for vaccinated mothers, but the data available on their infants was very limited.

Canterbury infants who had been prenatally exposed to a tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis vaccine were closely monitored by Walls and his team for between six and 12 months after birth. None of the infants developed pertussis despite high rates in their community at the time and no adverse effects were found.

Walls says the “new thinking” internationally is that immunising pregnant women is a safe and effective way to give children immunity against some highly contagious and dangerous infections.

“We now recognise that this vaccine [protecting against pertussis in pregnant women] is the best way to prevent infants too young to be vaccinated themselves from getting whooping cough. This is very important because rates of whooping cough are rising in the community presently and unvaccinated children are at the highest risk of getting severe disease.”

The Christchurch researchers are now trialling the effectiveness of a vaccine for pregnant women that protects against a virus that causes bronchiolitis, pneumonia and other serious respiratory illness in children.

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