Pregnant women who catch Covid ‘seven times more likely to die’, researchers warn

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Researchers say the findings add urgency to calls for more women to get vaccinated

Pregnant women who catch Covid are seven times more likely to die, new research warns.

A new study, published in BMJ Global Health, also found that Covid during pregnancy presents a “significantly elevated” risk of women being admitted to intensive care, while the risk of developing pneumonia 23 times more likely.

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Findings suggest that catching the virus during pregnancy can also put unborn babies at risk, increasing the likelihood they will need to be admitted to intensive care.

Scientists warn that the study adds urgency to calls for more women of childbearing age to get vaccinated against Covid to reduce the threat of health complications during pregnancy.

Lead author Professor Emily Smith, of the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health in the US said: “This study provides the most comprehensive evidence to date suggesting that Covid-19 is a threat during pregnancy. Our findings underscore the importance of Covid-19 vaccination for all women of childbearing age.”

Pregnant women who catch Covid are seven times more likely to die, researchers warn (Composite: Mark Hall)Pregnant women who catch Covid are seven times more likely to die, researchers warn (Composite: Mark Hall)
Pregnant women who catch Covid are seven times more likely to die, researchers warn (Composite: Mark Hall) | Mark Hall

What are the health risks to women and babies?

The research team assessed individual patient data from 12 studies conducted in 12 different countries, involving more than 13,000 pregnant women. Findings showed that pregnant women infected with Covid were:

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  • at seven times higher risk of dying during pregnancy or childbirth compared to uninfected pregnant women
  • at more than three times greater risk of being admitted to intensive care
  • at around 15 times higher risk of needing ventilator treatment
  • at 23 times higher risk of developing pneumonia
  • at more than five times higher risk of blood clots that can cause pain, swelling, or other life-threatening complications

As for babies born to women infected with Covid, scientists say they were almost twice as likely to be admitted to a neonatal intensive care unit after birth, and were also at higher risk of being born prematurely.

Despite growing knowledge about the risks of Covid during pregnancy, many women of childbearing age still remain unvaccinated. In some cases, women hesitate or refuse to get the vaccine or booster dose because they do not believe the virus poses risks to young women, or they feel unsure about the safety of the vaccine during pregnancy.

Prof Smith says some doctors may hesitate to give the vaccine to a pregnant woman, even though it is recommended, adding that - despite the very serious health risks posed by infection from coronavirus - more than 80 countries still do not recommend that all pregnant women get the Covid jab. However, she argues that the analysis provides public health officials and members of the public with “clear, consistent and compelling” findings.

She added: “This study shows the risk of getting Covid-19 for both mother and baby. All countries should make access to Covid vaccines an urgent priority in order to save lives and prevent health problems.”

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The benefits of Covid vaccines

The latest study comes after research last year found that being vaccinated against Covid while pregnant will not lead to babies being stillborn or being born early.

Researchers in Canada assessed data on 85,162 births where half of the mothers had received a coronavirus vaccine during pregnancy, and found that vaccination was not linked to a heightened risk of pre-term birth; it was not linked to babies being born smaller than expected and vaccination was not associated with babies being stillborn. The researchers said the findings were similar whichever trimester the woman was vaccinated in.

Getting a Covid vaccine is strongly recommended for pregnant and breastfeeding women by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists and the Royal College of Midwives, as experts say this is the safest and most effective way to protect against the virus.

As well as protecting women from Covid-related health risks, vaccination also poses benefits for babies. Dr Cesar Garcia-Diaz, fertility specialist and medical director of IVI London, told NationalWorld it is possible for babies to gain passive immunity to coronavirus through the immunoglobulins in breast milk, which could prevent babies from getting ill.

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He explained: “Immunoglobulins are antibodies which can protect your baby not only from Covid-19, but all sorts of pathogens. If a mother has received one or both doses of the Covid-19 vaccine, she will pass some of the IgG antibodies to her baby through her breast milk.

“Similarly, if she has had a previous Covid-19 infection, she will pass IgA antibodies to her baby. IgG and IgA are different classes of antibody, but both perform a similar job of eliminating pathogens which stops us from getting poorly.”

As babies are born with weakened immune systems, they are particularly susceptible to infection, so any immunity that can be passed on through breast milk would be beneficial.

Experts say there is also no need for women to avoid pregnancy after vaccination against Covid as there is no evidence the vaccines have any effect on fertility, or the chances of becoming pregnant.

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Dr Ellen Welch, editorial lead at DAUK, had two doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine while she was pregnant, and said her decision to get the jab was based on weighing up the risks.

She told NationalWorld: “I received both doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine while pregnant and for me, the risks of having long Covid, or being in intensive care with the disease, far outweighed the risks of being vaccinated, but the choice is a personal one.

“The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) have useful resources to help women make this decision. But there is no evidence that these vaccinations cause infertility or problems during pregnancy."

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