Don't Freak Out, Do Pay Attention: COVID May Cause More Pregnancy Complications Than We Thought

by Elaine Roth
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In the fourteen months since COVID was declared a global pandemic by the World Health Organization, our knowledge of the virus has evolved significantly. The puzzle pieces are filling in, often changing shape, as science works in real time. As a result, we understand better now how the virus transmits. We know now that COVID isn’t just a respiratory virus and that it can cause lingering, often devastating symptoms, in some people, for weeks or months after the initial infection.

Recently, a new study has evolved our understanding of another piece of the COVID puzzle. British scientists found that COVID seems to cause more pregnancy complications than originally thought.

Stephen Kennedy, Professor of Reproductive Medicine at the University of Oxford, who co-led the study, noted, “We now know that the risks to mothers and babies are greater than we assumed at the start of the pandemic and that known health measures when implemented must include pregnant women.”

First Of Its Kind Study On Pregnancy And COVID

Early on, researchers discovered that the chance of a severe COVID infection is higher in pregnancy. However, until now, information has been limited. Previous studies either attracted too few participants, couldn’t extract firm data, or were comparing pandemic world data against non-pandemic world data.

This study, which looked at more than 2,100 pregnant women from 43 maternity hospitals in 18 low, middle, and high-income countries around the world, addressed those issues. Each pregnant woman infected with COVID was compared to two non-infected pregnant women at the same stage in pregnancy and at the same hospital.

Researchers followed both groups of women—706 infected with COVID and 1424 without—through delivery and discharge from the hospital.

It’s important to note that the study was observational, and therefore there are limits on what it can tell us. However, the takeaway is reliable and indisputable: the results are consistently worse in pregnancy for those infected with COVID versus those who are not.

Clear Link Between COVID Infection and Pregnancy Complications

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The results of the study show a clear link between COVID infection and pregnancy complications. The risk of pregnancy-induced high blood pressure was 76 percent greater in those with a COVID infection. Likewise, they were at a much greater risk of severe infection and “five times as likely to be admitted to an intensive care unit,” according to the report in JAMA Pediatrics.

While death was fortunately rare across both groups, the study’s author, Aris Papageorghiou, Professor of Fetal Medicine at the University of Oxford, reported that “the risk of dying during pregnancy and in the postnatal period was 22 times higher in women with COVID-19 than in the non-infected pregnant women.” In total, 11 pregnant women with COVID-19 died. In the uninfected group, there was one death.

Clear Link Between COVID Infection And Newborn Complications

The study draws a clear link between COVID-infection during pregnancy and newborn complications. The rate of preterm birth was 60 to 97 percent greater in those infected with COVID. Furthermore, in COVID infected women who presented with fever and shortness of breath, the risk of neonatal complications, including immature lungs, brain damage, and eye disorders, increased fivefold.

More than 10 percent of the babies born to COVID positive mothers also tested positive for the virus. Researchers found that C-section deliveries were associated with a higher risk of transmission.

Fortunately, breastfeeding does not appear to transmit the virus from mother to baby, according José Villar, Professor of Perinatal Medicine at the University of Oxford, who co-led the study.

Don’t Freak Out, But Do Pay Attention

Kennedy noted, “The information should help families, as the need to do all one can to avoid becoming infected is now clear. It also strengthens the case for offering vaccination to all pregnant women.”

Studies like this can cause folks to freak out, especially those who are pregnant or planning to become pregnant in the near future. But there’s no need to freak out. The importance of studies like this is to remind everyone that we need to remain vigilant, plan according, and get vaccinated as soon as possible unless it’s contraindicated for other reasons.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recommends that COVID-19 vaccines “should not be withheld from pregnant individuals who meet criteria for vaccination based on ACIP-recommended priority groups.”

Of course, anyone who is pregnant or thinking of becoming pregnant should discuss any questions and concerns with their healthcare provider.

We (as a society, we) are hopefully in sight of that light at the end of our pandemic tunnel. The vaccines are a big reason for that. But the pandemic is not over. Severe outcomes still exist for the most vulnerable among us, and that includes pregnant people. For that reason, we must continue to mask, social distance, get vaccinated as soon as possible, and listen to the public health care experts.