In October 2018 the US Food and Drug Administration expanded the approved use of the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine (Gardasil 9) to adults aged 27 through 45.1 In June 2019, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) voted to extend catch-up HPV vaccination to include all individuals through age 26 and to catch-up HPV vaccination, based on shared clinical decision making, for all adults aged 27 through 45.2 HPV viruses are associated with cervical cancer, as well as several other forms of cancer that affect both women and men. Approval for the expanded use of the HPV vaccine was based on data of the vaccine’s use in women.1,3
Unfortunately, adult immunization rates, including among pregnant women, do not equal the higher rates in childhood vaccine uptake, according to Kevin A. Ault, MD, and colleagues. Less than half of women (46.6%) receive influenza vaccination prior to and during pregnancy, for instance.4 Dr. Ault has identified the need for an “immunization champion”—someone who can manage one-on-one conversations with patients in the office setting to enhance the acceptance and uptake of adult and maternal vaccines. OBG Management recently asked Dr. Ault how ObGyn practices could successfully implement such a champion and for his tips on communicating with patients about vaccination, particularly the maternal influenza vaccine.
OBG Management: How would you advise ObGyns to develop and execute an immunization champion position?
Dr. Kevin A. Ault, MD: The main thing a practice needs to do is to identify someone who is interested, and this person does not have to be a physician. In fact, he or she can frequently be a member of your nursing staff or office staff. And the word “champion” involves a lot of nuts and bolts: such details as how do you store the vaccine, how do you keep track of it, where are the vaccine information statements filed, where can the provider get more information if there is a question about contraindications? One person should organize all these details. The mechanics of vaccine administration are important as well, as the research shows that the more automated the process is, the better and more smoothly it is carried out. There is certainly a role for “standing orders” for adult vaccines.
OBG Management: What communication approach do you take with patients to enhance vaccination acceptance and uptake?
Dr. Ault: There are multiple research studies that show that provider recommendation is the most important way to get both nonpregnant and pregnant adults to receive vaccinations. Take the pertussis vaccine (the whooping cough booster) as an example. It is a relatively new vaccine recommendation during pregnancy. Your approach is relatively straightforward when explaining it to pregnant women. Make the point that we do not want your newborn to have whooping cough in those first few months of life before the newborn or infant vaccine becomes effective. Most people know they had a whooping cough, or pertussis, vaccine when they were younger, and the concept of the booster is well-known to patients. You should explain that the maternal antibodies pass through the placenta to the fetus, and they provide benefit for the first few months of life after birth.
The pertussis vaccine does not have all the “baggage” of the influenza vaccine. Talking with patients about the flu vaccine may present more challenges. Typically, each fall there is a popular press publication that explains “the 10, or 20, most common myths about influenza vaccine.” Every fall I try to find one of those articles, print it out, and even carry it in my jacket pocket and talk about all the myths. For example, there is a myth that “I always get sick when I get the flu shot.” Obstetricians should be giving patients an inactivated vaccine that does not contain any live flu virus. We should be able to explain to patients, your arm will be sore, and you may have some muscle aches, but you will not have the flu from your flu vaccine.
I think another reason that pregnant women do not always take the flu vaccine is that we do not yet have normalized influenza vaccination in the adult population. Women in their twenties and thirties are generally very healthy and have other concerns when they are pregnant, and they perhaps do not realize that they are more vulnerable to devastating effects of influenza while pregnant. Additionally, maternal influenza vaccination does protect the newborn from flu for the first few months. It is vital that those patients who are due during the dark winter months, when the flu is in season, get vaccinated.
Combat the myths and tell your patients the reasons for flu vaccination. Also tell them that you got your flu shot, like most health care professionals do every fall. You should be prepared to talk about safety. There are wonderful safety data, even some published in 2017 and 2018, about pertussis vaccine safety during pregnancy, and it is very reassuring to patients. For flu, the idea of vaccinating women against influenza has been around for decades, and so we have reliable information about that as well. Certainly, the risks are very minor, and the benefits are potentially huge for the pregnant woman and for the newborn.