Biomedical science is ever changing, and what may be believed in one era – for instance, bloodletting can cure disease or lobotomies can treat psychiatric disorders – may not be accepted in the next. However, one medical advance stands out in terms of maintaining and sustaining our health: vaccines. The data comparing morbidity and mortality before and after widespread vaccination are staggering. Before the smallpox vaccine, nearly 49,000 people were infected and more than 1,500 died annually from smallpox; by 1977, the vaccine eradicated the disease in the United States.1 Polio caused paralytic disease in more than 16,000 people per year in the United States, including, perhaps most famously, President Franklin Roosevelt. After development of the polio vaccine, cases and deaths dropped to zero.2
Despite the evidence indicating the effectiveness of vaccines to reduce disease and death, rates of vaccination in the United States remain low among adults, ranging from about 23% for pneumococcal disease to 45% for seasonal influenza.3 Childhood immunization in 2017 hovered around 70% for those receiving all the recommended vaccines.4 Clearly there is room for improvement.
A woman’s ob.gyn. may be the only medical professional she sees regularly, and her annual well visit may be the only time she receives information regarding her weight and blood pressure, or reviews her current medications. For women who are planning pregnancy, pregnant, or post partum, ob.gyn. consultations present unique opportunities to increase patient engagement in healthy behaviors, such as diet, exercise, and regular sleep, because women are highly motivated to do what is best for their babies.
Immunization during pregnancy not only reduces the mother’s risk of severe disease, which can lead to complications, defects, and fetal or perinatal death, but also has been shown to improve the neonate’s ability to fight infection and may reduce vertical transmission of certain diseases. In this era of COVID-19 where we have no vaccine but we have evidence that pregnant women may be at greater risk for severe disease,5 routine immunizations are vital to maternal and fetal health.
We have invited Laura E. Riley, MD, chair of obstetrics and gynecology at Weill Cornell Medicine, New York, to address the importance of vaccination and the role of the ob.gyn. in advocating for this life-saving preventive health measure. Dr. Riley disclosed she is an author for Up to Date and was a consultant to GlaxoSmithKline about a cytomegalovirus vaccine.
Dr. Reece, who specializes in maternal-fetal medicine, is executive vice president for medical affairs at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, as well as the John Z. and Akiko K. Bowers Distinguished Professor and dean of the school of medicine. He is the medical editor of this column. He said he had no relevant financial disclosures. Contact him at.