Pregnant women who become infected with the delta variant have a significantly higher risk of stillbirth or dying during childbirth, new studies show.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report Friday that examined 1.2 million births at 736 hospitals nationwide from March 2020 to September 2021.
Stillbirths were rare overall, a total of 8,154 among all births. However, researchers found that for women with COVID-19, about one in 80 births resulted in a stillbirth. Among the uninfected, the frequency was one in 155.
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Among those with COVID-19, stillbirths were more common in people with chronic high blood pressure and other complications, including those on intensive care or on respirators, according to the studies.
“These findings underscore the importance of COVID-19 prevention strategies, including vaccination before or during pregnancy,” said CDC researcher Carla DeSisto and co-authors.
There is no information on how many women had received COVID-19 shots, although the authors noted that the U.S. vaccination rate among pregnant women after the highly contagious delta variant emerged last summer was only 30%.
Pregnant women infected with COVID-19 were more likely than others to develop serious, even fatal, disease, and they also faced increased risks of preterm birth and other complications, the researchers found. Previous studies of stillbirths and COVID-19 had mixed results, but the new report reinforces concerns among obstetricians and anecdotal data.
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Although the risk of stillbirth is low, anyone who is pregnant should not underestimate the dangers of COVID-19, said Dr. Mark Turrentine, professor at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. He helped write American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommendations for COVID-19 vaccination during pregnancy.
“What’s really sad is that we have 10 months with a vaccine that has been extremely effective, and we just can not convince people to take advantage of this,” Turrentine said of a minority of vaccine opponents.
Some experts have speculated that the virus may cause inflammation of the placenta or other abnormalities that can harm the fetus.
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Dr. Joseph Biggio, a specialist in high-risk pregnancies at Ochsner Health in New Orleans, said the study did not prove that COVID-19 causes stillbirths. He said it is possible that some women were so critically ill that doctors who tried to keep them alive “could not intervene on behalf of a fetus who they knew was in trouble.”
The researchers relied on medical records and noted that they were unable to determine whether the COVID-19 diagnoses listed at the time of delivery represented current or past infections.
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In general, stillbirths are more common among black people, those who become pregnant over the age of 35 or those who smoke tobacco during pregnancy.
The study did not include post-race pregnancy outcomes, an area the authors said they plan to investigate in future research “because COVID-19 has disproportionately affected many racial and ethnic minority groups, putting them at greater risk of becoming ill and dying.”
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