The Delta variant of Covid-19 is dominating cases worldwide, and health officials in some countries are sounding alarm over its impact on pregnant women.
Several of England’s top health officials issued a joint statement on Friday urging pregnant women to get vaccinated against the coronavirus. They pointed to new data showing that 98% of expectant mothers admitted to the hospital with Covid-19 in the country since May were unvaccinated.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has also previously said that infected, pregnant women face an increased risk of developing severe Covid-19 compared with non-pregnant women of a similar age.
One concern is that risk might be even higher with the Delta strain, which has been shown to be more contagious and can cause more severe disease compared to the earlier variants of the virus.
Here’s what you need to know.
Is Delta more dangerous if you’re pregnant?
The Delta variant is more contagious and can cause more severe disease for everyone, including pregnant women.
The latest data gathered by the UK Obstetric Surveillance System (UKOSS) showed the number of pregnant women that are being admitted to hospital with Covid-19 is increasing in the UK due to the Delta strain.
“Compared to the original Covid virus the new variants (alpha and then delta) caused progressively more severe disease in pregnant women,” Andrew Shennan, professor of obstetrics at King’s College London, said in a statement to the UK’s Science Media Centre. “This included need for ventilation, intensive care admission and pneumonia, more than 50% more likely to occur,” he added.
The data collected by UKOSS show that around 33% of women in hospital with Covid-19 needed respiratory support and that 15% needed intensive care.
The UKOSS data only includes pregnant women. However, the group said that while the increase in hospitalizations was broadly in line with the current rise in Covid-19 hospital admissions in the UK’s general population, the data highlights an increase among pregnant women needing care for acute symptoms.
What about risks to the baby?
Previous studies have shown that Covid-19 infection raises the risk of negative outcomes for both the mother and the baby. These risks include preeclampsia, infections, admission to hospital intensive care units and even death.
According to an April study published in JAMA Pediatrics that looked at over 2,000 pregnant women in 43 medical institutions across 18 countries, babies born to mothers infected with the coronavirus were also at a somewhat higher risk of preterm birth and low birth weight.
The new data collected by UKOSS showed that one in five women admitted to hospital with serious Covid-19 symptoms went on to give birth prematurely, and the likelihood of delivery by C-section doubled. One in five babies born to mothers with coronavirus symptoms were also admitted to neonatal units.
Is the vaccine safe for pregnant people?
Yes. Studies and real-world data have shown there are no specific safety concerns for pregnant people or their babies on taking a Covid-19 vaccine.
“Hundreds of thousands of pregnant women worldwide have been vaccinated, safely and effectively protecting themselves against Covid and dramatically reducing their risk of serious illness or harm to their baby,” Gill Walton, the chief executive of the Royal College of Midwives in the UK, said in a statement on Friday.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunization in the UK and Australia’s Technical Advisory Group on Immunization all advise pregnant women to get a Covid-19 shot. The WHO says that pregnant women should get the vaccine in situations where the benefits of vaccination outweigh the potential risks – such as if they are living in areas with high number of cases.
Some countries have even prioritized immunization for pregnant people. The Australian government said anyone who is pregnant and over the age of 16 can get the vaccine now, even though the slow vaccine rollout there means that only those above the age of 40 are currently eligible for the shot among the general population.
The Canadian provinces of Ontario and British Columbia have also prioritized vaccination for those who are pregnant.
But the picture is mixed across the globe. According to data collected by Johns Hopkins University (JHU), 20 countries currently recommend the use of the Covid-19 shot in pregnancy, while 39 permit it.
A further 33 countries permit the vaccines in some situations – for example if expectant mothers face increased risk of catching Covid-19 because of her job or has underlying health condition that put them at risk of developing severe disease.
According to the JHU data, 51 countries either don’t recommend the vaccine in pregnancy at all, or only under certain conditions. The countries include Germany, which has cited a lack of safety data as the reason for its position, because pregnant people were not part of the safety trials.
What about those who are breastfeeding?
The WHO has recommended breastfeeding women should be vaccinated and said women should not stop breastfeeding due to vaccination, because the shots are unlikely to pose any risk for the baby.
Covid vaccines do not harm the placenta or cause infertility
Myths about the Covid-19 vaccines impacting infertility or hurting the placenta have been swirling on social media, but scientists have been clear: these have no scientific basis.
There’s no biological basis behind the claims that Covid-19 vaccines can harm the placenta, the organ that provides a growing baby oxygen and nutrients during pregnancy.
Dr. Richard Beigi, who sits on the Immunization, Infectious Disease, and Public Health Preparedness Expert Work Group of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, said there was “no clear scientific reason to think the new vaccine would cause fertility problems.”
Similarly, it is impossible to catch coronavirus from the vaccine, as the shots do not contain live Covid-19 virus.
“You cannot catch Covid-19 from the vaccines and cannot pass it to your baby through your breast milk,” according to the official advice from the UK’s National Health Service.
In fact, research has shown that most pregnant women who got the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna Covid-19 vaccines passed protective antibodies to their newborns, measured in breast milk and the placenta.