For the first time, this year’s seasonal flu vaccine containing swine flu antigens will be offered to pregnant women to protect against the H1N1 virus.
The department’s Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) is also considering whether pregnant women should be included in at-risk groups for future seasonal flu vaccination campaigns.
Evidence shows pregnant women are at increased risk of severe disease and hospitalisation from the H1N1 strain, which is expected to circulate this winter.
If the JCVI recommended regular seasonal vaccination of pregnant women, the decision would pass to the DoH for approval on the grounds of cost effectiveness, among others.
Launching this year’s vaccination programme, Professor David Salisbury, director of immunisation, said emerging evidence showed vaccinating pregnant women may also confer protection on the infant after birth.
The DoH said it did not expect the inclusion of swine flu antigens to affect uptake. There have been suggestions patients who rejected last year’s swine flu vaccine may also refuse the seasonal jab as well.
Professor Salisbury said turning down the seasonal flu vaccine because of concerns over the swine flu component would be ‘foolhardy’.
‘To be ignoring vaccination because of prejudice of swine flu is putting yourself at unnecessary risk,’ he said.
The JCVI had also considered whether to vaccinate healthy children under five years this season.
However, the proposal was turned down due to a lack of evidence for cost effectiveness, and because many children contracted the virus or were vaccinated last year. This means many should remain immune this winter.