COVID vaccination rates are low in pregnant women. Experts say misinformation is partly to blame.

A pregnant woman about to receive a COVID vaccine in her arm.

Experts say pregnant women are particularly vulnerable to misinformation about the COVID-19 vaccine. (Getty Images)

Getting COVID-19 while pregnant comes with a number of risks. Pregnant women who are infected have a higher risk of serious illness — and according to a new meta-analysis of 12 studies involving more than 13,000 pregnant women, a “clearly increased” Risk of maternal death compared to uninfected pregnant women — as well as pregnancy complications, preterm birth and stillbirth, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Despite the high stakes, vaccination rates remain low for this vulnerable group.

Research has shown that compared to women trying to conceive, breastfeeding and other women in general, pregnant women had this lowest vaccination rates – About 30 percent of pregnant women in the US have not completed the primary vaccine course – and vaccine uptake is “clearly lower” during pregnancy.

As a result, health organizations including the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the CDCcontinue encourage pregnant womenor those thinking of getting pregnant, getting vaccinated.

So what is causing this reluctance to vaccinate pregnant women? Experts disassemble it.

Why do pregnant women in particular suffer from COVID vaccination delays?

Part of the hesitation might be because people were originally pregnant excluded from clinical trials for the vaccines and as a result had less confidence in their safety.

dr Alisa Kachikisboard-certified maternal-fetal medicine and assistant professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at UW Medicine, points out that it is “quite normal” for pregnant women to ask questions about medications and vaccines during pregnancy because they ” wanting to do the best possible for their babies.” She tells Yahoo Life, “There are always questions about vaccines that are recommended for pregnancy.”

In the case of the COVID vaccine, she says, “there was an initial concern because there was little safety data available when pregnant people were eligible for COVID-19 vaccines,” adding that we now have “really robust safety data of COVID-19 vaccines given during pregnancy, especially when compared to the risks of COVID-19 infection during pregnancy.”

Another possible factor is the underestimation of the actual risk of disease. “Pregnant women are usually young and healthy,” dr Mark Turrentine, professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital, told Yahoo Life. “Perhaps there are false assumptions that they don’t get ‘sick’ from this condition. This sense of being “protected”, coupled with concerns about vaccine safety or distrust – albeit unfounded – of a “new” vaccine results in under-utilisation of this preventative measure.”

How vaccine misinformation and fear create the ‘perfect storm of concern’

Both experts and organizations, including the Kaiser Family Foundation, point to “widespreadMisinformation as the main culprit behind vaccine hesitancy. Turrentine says some pregnant women have “absolutely” fallen victim to misinformation about COVID vaccines.

“Although social media can be an easy way to access information, it’s not filtered,” says Turrentine. “Unfortunately, sensationalism attracts attention. So claims unsupported by evidence can make good headlines — or lead to more link clicks — and the misleading information can harm individuals,” including recommendations not to get vaccinated while pregnant.

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, about 3 in 10 women are pregnant or planning to become pregnant believe at least one of three false statements about pregnancy and vaccinations, such as “Pregnant women should not be vaccinated against COVID-19” and “It is unsafe for breastfeeding women to be vaccinated against COVID-19” and “COVID vaccines have been shown to affect infertility” – none of which is true.

“There is no doubt that pregnant women are particularly vulnerable to the misinformation surrounding the COVID vaccine,” dr Michael CackovicSpecialist in maternal-fetal medicine and associate clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center, told Yahoo Life.

This is likely due to increased feelings of anxiety that can accompany pregnancy. “Pregnancy is a lot of fun, but it’s also a time of change and responsibility,” says Cackovic, “and over 10% of pregnant women complain of increased anxiety. Add that to all the concerns about the COVID vaccine that are rife and you have a perfect storm of concern for your pregnancy and baby.

How safe are COVID vaccines for pregnant women?

COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective for pregnant persons according to the CDC. As of January 7, 2023, nearly 72% of pregnant women in the US have received the COVID vaccine before or during pregnancy, Turrentine notes. “Thus, millions of women have been immunized with the COVID-19 vaccine and no safety concerns have been identified for the mother or the baby,” he says.

Research shows that getting vaccinated during pregnancy helps protect both mother and child (thanks to maternal antibodies that are passed on to babies in the womb and through breast milk), reducing the risk related to COVID Hospitalization in children under 6 months. This is especially important as babies under 6 months are not yet eligible for COVID vaccines.

Kachikis explains that one of the “wonderful” functions of the placenta during pregnancy is to protect newborns from infection “by transferring as many of the mother’s antibodies, or germ-fighters, to the baby as possible while it’s still in the uterus. When the baby is born, the mother’s antibodies in the baby help protect babies from really serious illnesses such as heart disease Tetanus in newborns and whooping cough.”

Getting the full COVID-19 series, and a booster shot in particular, can increase COVID antibody levels in pregnant women to provide even more antibodies to the placenta for transmission to their babies, Kachikis says. “This is a great way to give newborns the best possible start in terms of COVID-19 protection,” she adds.

Turrentine says it’s important to weigh your personal risk related to COVID and that pregnant people should “be allowed to make their own decision” about getting the vaccine. “Nevertheless, I would like to encourage all pregnant women to protect themselves from a virus that could be potentially life-threatening to themselves and harmful to their unborn child,” he says.

Cackovic agrees, saying: “The vaccine, as always, is our best defense against viruses. They are safe, proven and effective. Vaccination should be your first step in protecting your new baby.”

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