Swine Flu Poses Special Threat For Pregnant Women

PHOTO Melissa and Jeremy Dameron are shown.Courtesy of Melissa Dameron
Melissa and Jeremy Dameron are shown.

When pregnant 28-year-old Melissa Dameron of Indianapolis, Ind. first began to develop flu-like symptoms, she never suspected that she would soon face an illness that would threaten both her life and that of her unborn baby.

Last September, she and her husband were in the middle of a marathon road trip, driving from Florida to Virginia to visit her in-laws, and then continuing to New England to see her husband's family.

At first, Dameron wrote her symptoms off as a combination of morning sickness and the sniffles.

VIDEO: Dr. Denise Jamison explains how the vaccine can affect pregnant women.Play

"At the end of the week I developed a cough, and I really just thought I was getting a cold," Dameron said.

But before long, it became clear that the trip would be interrupted. Dameron's cough turned nasty, and by Saturday night she couldn't keep anything down.

"The coughing sort of inspired the rest of the food to come up," she said. "I was huddled in blankets trying to make it to the next stop."

When the symptoms became too severe for her to bear, Dameron went to a clinic in Rhode Island. Doctors there directed her to the Women's and Infant's Hospital in Providence.

By this point, her condition had become life threatening. Once she was at the hospital, doctors learned that her blood oxygen levels had dropped dangerously low.

"When you get sick but are also growing a baby, you're short of breath anyway," she said. "I didn't quite think anything of it but apparently it was really bad."

She had swine flu and had developed pneumonia on top of it, and doctors immediately began treating her for both. During her 10-day hospitalization, Dameron would spend three of those days in the intensive care unit, or ICU.

"I didn't feel afraid for myself until after I was pretty much recovered," she said. "And I look back and what I'd gone through... and now I see exactly how scary it really was."

Seventeen-year-old Victoria Penn of Philadelphia, Pa., found herself faced with a similar situation. Penn, who was pregnant at the time, first started feeling sick on an August morning.

"I tried to sleep on it," she said. "At first I thought it was just me having a little cold."

By the next morning, she said, she was vomiting uncontrollably. It was at this point when she knew something was wrong, since during her seven months of pregnancy she had not once experienced morning sickness.

Swine Flu While Pregnant: A Nightmare

She called her aunt, who rushed her to a nearby hospital before she was transferred to Philadelphia's Pennsylvania Hospital.

"I never felt like it before," she said.

Penn, too, received immediate treatment for both flu and pneumonia and ended up in the ICU before recovering.

"[The pain] was so bad that I couldn't talk to the doctor. I just kept on crying," she said. "I was just scared that something was going to happen to my baby."

By all accounts, the experiences of Dameron and Penn were unpleasant ones. But among other pregnant women who have fallen ill with the swine flu, they are among the lucky ones.

Last week, officials with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that through late August, about 100 pregnant women in the United States have required hospitalization in the ICU for infection with the new strain of the H1N1 virus. Of these women, 28 so far have died due to complications directly associated with the virus.

The grim statistics support research, most notably a study published in the journal Lancet in August, suggesting that pregnant women are more likely that the rest of the population to experience severe complications associated with swine flu.

"There is no question that pregnancy substantially increases the risk of severe illness from swine flu," noted Dr. Robert Schooley, professor and head of the Division of Infectious Diseases at the University of California, San Diego. "We've had pregnant women with H1N1 in our ICU over the summer and at least one death."

The reasons that pregnant women are at higher risk of serious problems from the illness are not yet entirely clear. Perhaps the differences in immune function and responsiveness lead to the problems, Schooley suggested. Or possibly differences in heart function or pressure on the lungs from pregnancy are to blame.

But regardless of the reason, the consequences of these severe infections are clear.

"Some women make it out of the ICU and some, unfortunately, do not," Schooley said.

Dr. Brenna Anderson, Director of Reproductive Infectious Disease Consultation at Women and Infants Hospital and one of the doctors that cared for Dameron, said that low oxygen levels in the blood are dangerous for pregnant women – but even more so for their babies.

"Any time oxygen levels are down, that really impacts on the baby," she said. "Once mom's oxygen levels go down, that suppresses the oxygen levels of the baby and can cause still birth or emergency delivery."

Vaccine Fears Contribute to Pregnant Women's Risk

Still, some pregnant women are choosing to take their chances with the swine flu in order to avoid getting the new vaccine.

"There's a fetus in my belly – my baby," Lubell told "Good Morning America." "I'll do anything I can to protect it. I just don't think that injecting it with a vaccine is the right thing to do."

Lubell is not alone. Despite sobering warnings from the CDC that pregnant women are seven times as likely to be hospitalized with H1N1 and four times as likely to die from it, many expectant mothers report that they are torn as to whether to get the new vaccine.

Dr. Peter Katona, associate professor of medicine at University of California, Los Angeles Medical Center, said that increased vulnerability of pregnant women to certain types of flu is a phenomenon that has been seen in the past.

"Add to this the reluctance of many pregnant women not to put anything at all into their systems and you have a big problem," said Katona, who adds that he has heard of several women who were told by their obstetricians not to take the swine flu vaccine.

Indeed, Maryland mom Amanda Gleason who is due in January with her second child told ABC's "Good Morning America" that her pediatrician talked her out of getting the vaccine fo herself and her young daughter.

"She said she wouldn't recommend anything for her patients that she wouldn't recommend for her own family."

As for Dameron, she says she's not planning on getting vaccinated for the flu or swine flu at this point, but she says that she will follow the advice of her doctor. And if it comes to taking the shots, Dameron said she will.

"First-time moms may not take [swine flu] seriously," she said. "When you have another life inside of you it changes a lot of things. You need to be a little more aware of what's flying around out there."

Reports from "Good Morning America" contributed to this report.