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COVID-19: are pregnant women more at risk? No

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Are pregnant women more likely to catch COVID-19? Is the virus more dangerous for them and their child? The Rumour Detector finds that the current state of knowledge is relatively reassuring.  
Origin of the rumour 

The H1N1 flu and SARS apparently increased the risks of complications for mother and child. It would therefore seem logical to fear the same with this new coronavirus. 

It’s also known that pregnant women, due to physiological and immune system changes induced by pregnancy, may develop complications after a respiratory infection. This virus tends to attack the cardiovascular system and the lungs, already stressed by pregnancy. Finally, this coronavirus sometime causes blood clots, a risk also increased by pregnancy.  

Risks for the mother? 

Research still has a long way to go to answer this question. But even though research continues, practitioners seem to agree that if COVID-19 presented a very high risk for pregnant women and their fetus (like the Zika virus), this would already be known

The observations on H1N1 and SARS were based on a small number of cases. This year, the studies on this subject, coming from China and Europe, are partial. That’s why, in Junea network of Canadian researchers launched a study of COVID-19’s impact on pregnant women. 

Small-scale studies suggested that some babies of mothers infected with COVID would be born prematurely, have a lower birth weight and spend more time in the hospital. A study  by the American Centers for Disease Control (CDC),  published in June, points to an increased risk of hospitalizations and intensive care admissions for pregnant women, but no increase in deaths. A small-scale Swedish study (comparing 13 pregnant women to 40 non-pregnant women) also found that pregnant patients were more at risk of ending up in intensive care. However, according to the Harvard Medical School’s  Health Blog, nothing in this research indicates that becoming ill with COVID-19 increases the risk of miscarriages.  

No risks for the baby 

In July, partly based on similar research it had conducted during previous epidemics, an American team concluded that fetuses were rarely infected in their mother’s womb. The placenta would produce very low quantities of virus receptor and transmission of the disease to the baby seems very rare. Only one case of transmission via the placenta was reported in France. Three babies born by Caesarian section were diagnosed with COVID-19 in China, but it is possible they contracted it after birth. No cases of malformation were reported in the world, and no brain damage was found for now.  

Beware of stress 

The medical community recommends caution and vigilance. But given these fairly low risks, it does not advise self-isolation or panic. While research knows little about the consequences of the coronavirus, stress has well-known effects on the mother and child.  

It’s already known that the fetus can be affected in many ways by the mother’s stress and anxiety: premature birth, lower birth weight. This was found by the Ice Storm Project, conducted 20 years after births during the 1998 Québec ice storm crisis. The impacts are then observable in the child for several years. The professor behind this study, Susan King, is currently co-directing a vast Québec study of 5000 pregnant women worldwide. It will examine the effect of pandemic-related stress on mothers and their children.  

In a survey of 1258 pregnant women in Québec, other Québec researchers found an increase in depressive symptoms and anxiety. This is cause for concern for their health and their babies’ health.  

Pregnant women should therefore adopt barrier actions… and stay zen.  

This article was originally published on the website of L'Agence Science-Presse (French only).


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