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Text messages boost flu vaccine rates in pregnant women

Researchers find that those who received five text messages every week about the importance of flu shots were 30 percent more likely to get one than those who only received phone calls.

The CDC reports that last year flu vaccinations helped prevent nearly 7 million illnesses, 3.2 million doctor visits, and more than 79,000 hospitalizations. Getty Images

For most of us, getting the flu is a pain. We feel bad, we miss work, then we move on with our lives. But for some, the flu is deadly -- and symptoms tend to be most severe in kids younger than 2.

So researchers at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health set out to determine whether text-messaging pregnant women reminders to get the seasonal flu shot would provide a boost in adherence rates. Turns out it does, at least among "urban, low-income" pregnant women.

Reporting in a special issue of the American Journal of Public Health devoted to improving birth outcomes, researchers studied 1,187 obstetric patients from five community clinics in New York City. They found that women in an intervention group -- meaning those who received five text messages every week about the importance of flu shots in addition to two automated telephone appointment reminders -- were 30 percent more likely to get vaccinated than those who received only the phone calls.

"Vaccination during pregnancy helps to protect newborns," Melissa Stockwell, an assistant professor of population and family health and a physician at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, said in a news release. "To achieve protection before influenza begins circulating in the community, we strongly recommend that women receive influenza vaccination during pregnancy and as soon as the vaccine becomes available in the fall."

Researchers at Columbia also reported a slight uptick among kids receiving flu shot reminders by text in a larger, randomized trial in 2012.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the US is in the throes of flu season, with 35 states reporting widespread activity and hospitalizations -- 10 more states than in the previous week. ("Widespread" indicates that more than half of the state's geographic regions, such as counties, are reporting flu activity.)

Unlike last year's severe flu season, this year's is reportedly fairly standard in severity, with the one exception being that we're seeing the highest number of H1N1 infections since the "swine" flu caused a global pandemic in 2009. Since late September, 10 kids have reportedly died from the flu, four of them last week alone, with all but one of those four confirmed to be infected with the H1N1 strain.

And while kids and pregnant women are a main target of flu shot campaigns, the CDC has also issued a warning that during this year's flu season it has received many reports of severe respiratory illness in young and middle-aged patients infected with the H1N1 strain.

So if you know someone who's been meaning to get the shot but hasn't yet, try texting them a friendly reminder or two.