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Pregnant women who become infected with the delta variant face a significantly higher risk of a stillbirth or dying during childbirth, new studies show.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report Friday that examined 1.2 million deliveries in 736 hospitals nationwide from March 2020 through September 2021.
Stillbirths were rare overall, totaling 8,154 among all deliveries. But researchers found that for women with COVID-19, about one in 80 deliveries resulted in a stillbirth. Among the uninfected, the rate 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 in intensive care or on breathing machines, 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’s 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 this past summer was just 30%.
Pregnant women infected with COVID-19 were more likely than others to develop severe, even fatal, illness and they also faced increased risks for preterm birth and other complications, the researchers found. Previous studies on stillbirths and COVID-19 had mixed findings, but the new report bolsters concerns among obstetricians and anecdotal data.
The shift comes after the global health agency faced criticism for its stance as it conflicted with guidance from the CDC. Experts also voiced concerns that inconsistent information could confuse expectant women hoping to learn if they should be vaccinated against COVID-19 or not.
While the risk for a stillbirth is low, anyone who is pregnant shouldn’t underestimate the dangers of COVID-19, said Dr. Mark Turrentine, a professor at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. He helped write the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists’ recommendations for COVID-19 vaccination in pregnancy.
“What’s really sad is we have 10 months of a vaccine that’s been highly effective, and we just can’t convince people to take advantage of this,” Turrentine said of a minority of vaccine resisters.
Some experts have speculated that the virus may cause inflammation in the placenta or other abnormalities that could 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 doesn’t prove that COVID-19 causes stillbirths. He said it’s possible some women were so critically ill that physicians trying to keep them alive “couldn’t intervene on behalf of a fetus that they knew was in trouble.”
The researchers relied on medical records and noted that they were unable to determine if the COVID-19 diagnoses listed at the time of delivery represented current or past infections.
Generally, stillbirths are more common among Black people, those who become pregnant over age 35 or those who smoke tobacco during pregnancy.
The study didn’t include pregnancy outcomes by race, 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 more at risk of getting sick and dying.”
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