Maternal immunization Helping protect mums and babies

Maternal immunisation: Helping protect mums and babies

Childhood vaccination against deadly diseases such as measles, bacterial meningitis and pneumonia, is one of the medical breakthroughs of the 20th century. Usually scheduled to start when the baby reaches 2 months, vaccination can help prevent 2-3 million deaths each year1.

Less well known is that, for some diseases, this protection has been shown to start earlier by vaccinating mums-to-be during pregnancy.

Immunisation during pregnancy can help protect the mother, and also help protect the baby before birth and right through those critical first few weeks of life when the baby is too young to be vaccinated. According to the WHO, a child's risk of dying is highest during the first 28 days of life2.

This protection is provided to the baby by the transfer of maternal antibodies across the placenta. The antibodies are picked up by receptors in the placenta, at an increasing rate throughout pregnancy in particular during the third trimester when transfer rate is at its highest and when certain maternal vaccinations can take place. 

It may be less well known but maternal immunisation has been used for many years to help protect mothers and their babies.

The biggest success story of maternal immunisation on a global scale is the tetanus vaccine. Infection of the unhealed umbilical stump can lead to the development of fatal neonatal tetanus as well as other infections. Vaccination of pregnant women can help prevent tetanus developing during these early days.

In 1988, around 787,000 babies died of neonatal tetanus globally3. The following year, a WHO maternal and neonatal tetanus vaccination campaign in developing countries, focused on maternal vaccination and improved hygienic cord care practices, resulted in a 94% reduction in neonatal tetanus by 2013.3

Other diseases which can be prevented by maternal immunisation today include:

Whooping cough – a highly contagious disease usually spread by parents or other caregivers. It may result in pneumonia and many babies will have trouble breathing. About half of babies younger than 1 year old who get whooping cough end up in the hospital 4

Influenza – due to changes in a pregnant woman’s immune system, they can be more prone to severe illness from the flu and a greater chance for serious problems for their developing baby, including premature labour and delivery5

The area of maternal immunisation continues to inspire people; mother and public health expert, Linda Hanssens, global medical lead at GSK has been working on maternal immunisation for the last four years:

"Every day I’m motivated by the thought of helping pregnant women and their newborns thrive. However we still have a long way to go to bridge the gap in knowledge around maternal immunisation and to make sure it is accessible for women irrespective of their location." 

At GSK, there is also research underway to develop vaccines against diseases which are continuing to have a damaging effect on the health of both mother and child including:

  • Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV), a virus causing acute respiratory infections in nearly 65 million infants and children per year6, which can result in chest infections, hospitalization and in rare cases death.
  • Group B Streptococcus (GBS), is a leading cause of pneumonia, bacterial meningitis and sepsis in newborns causing serious illness and sometimes death. 


  1. WHO Factsheet Children: Reducing Mortality Available at Accessed October 12 2016
  2. WHO Factsheet Children: Reducing Mortality Available at Accessed October 12 2016
  3. WHO factsheet: Maternal and Nenatal Tetanus Elimination. Available at Accessed October 13, 2016
  4. CDC Factsheet, Help Protect Babies from Whooping Cough. Available at Accessed October 10, 2016
  5. CDC Factsheet, Pregnant Women and Influenza. Available at Accessed October 10, 2016
  6. Hurwitz, J. Respiratorysyncytial virus vaccine development. Available at Accessed Ocotber 13, 2016