More than 600 babies have been born prematurely and needing critical care to mothers hospitalised by Covid-19, The Independent can reveal — as women are warned they are up to three times more likely to have an early birth with the virus.
The figures, which cover 17 months of the pandemic, prompted calls for the government to make pregnant women of all ages eligible for Covid-19 booster jabs.
Concern about pregnant women avoiding the vaccine has pushed chief medical officer Chris Whitty to urge mothers-to-be to get fully jabbed, with take-up rates in this group as low as 15 per cent last month.
Data uncovered by The Independent from a national maternity conference shows that, out of 3,306 babies born to mothers admitted to hospital with Covid-19 between the start of the pandemic in March 2020 and July 2021, 694 were born prematurely and of those 604 were so ill they had to be admitted to a critical care unit.
Dr Patrick O’Brien, from the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG), said there have been preventable admissions of women to intensive care, and even deaths.
“This is a universal view among doctors and among the midwife advisory groups and among the scientific advisory groups,” he said. “So can I please encourage all women who are pregnant or wishing to become pregnant to get their vaccination.”
Professor Marian Knight, a top maternal mortality expert, shared data from the UK Obstetric Surveillance System showing that, between February and September this year, more than 1,000 pregnant women were admitted to hospital with Covid-19, around 98 per cent of whom were unvaccinated.
She said the risk of premature births was the most important impact of Covid-19 on pregnant women “that isn’t really talked about or recognised.”
“We know that if you are admitted with symptoms of Covid, in pregnancy, you as a woman have about a one in 10 chance being admitted to intensive care,” she said. “But you’ve got a one in five chance of having a preterm baby.
“And that’s between two and three times higher than your risk of having a preterm baby without Covid.”
Professor Knight said it had been “really difficult” for pregnant women as messaging around vaccination has changed over the past year.
However, she and Dr O’Brien both called for all pregnant women to be made eligible for booster vaccines — following a similar move last week by counterparts in the US.
Current guidance from the UK Joint Committee for Immunisations and Vaccinations (JCVI) is that only pregnant women who are over 40 or within a clinically vulnerable group are eligible.
Professor Knight’s figures show that 13 pregnant women died during the February 2021 Covid wave after being admitted to hospital with the disease, compared to 11 and nine in the previous two waves.
Dr O’Brien said: “Pregnant women are at increased risk of severe Covid-19 and serious infection can also put their babies at risk due to being born prematurely. We would urge the government to ensure there is a plan in place for pregnant women to receive the booster vaccine as we enter winter.
“Many pregnant women will be coming to the point where they had their second Covid-19 vaccine six months ago and it is crucial they and their baby remain protected.”
He explained: “It’s not so much that the virus directly affects the babies, it’s that the virus is causing us to deliver the baby early.”
Births earlier than 28 weeks increase the risk of severe long-term harm, while after 34 weeks babies are usually fine.
Professor Asma Khalil, of the RCOG, added: “We know that prematurity is associated with the risk of disability and also higher chance of needing admission to a neonatal care unit.
“I think if you put everything together, Covid can harm the mother and the baby, and we know that the best way to protect the mother and baby is to get their vaccination.”
‘They moved him without letting us see him’
Asya, from southeast London, spoke to The Independent about the “awful” experience of having her son Daniel born at 28 weeks after she contracted Covid-19 last December, before vaccines were available.
Leading up to his birth, 35-year-old Asya, who was seven months pregnant, contracted Covid-19 along with her husband.
“Suddenly, after about five days, I thought I felt less movements from the baby,” she said. “They took me to A&E, then moved me into the labour ward. The next day they said the baby is in respiratory distress, we need to get him out and I was going to have to have an emergency C-section.”
Although her husband was out of isolation, infection control rules meant he was not allowed at the birth, nor was he able to see his wife initially.
“They showed me my baby for a second and then they showed him to my husband and then sent him to the neonatal unit,” said Asya.
“Daniel was born very small and actually tested positive for Covid-19. He had to be intubated, he had bleeds in his brain, and due to a bleed in his lung they moved him to a different hospital to a higher level neonatal unit. They moved him without letting us see him and we were not allowed to visit him initially.”
Eventually Asya and her husband were able to see their son, but only separately and once a day through “many layers of PPE”.
Daniel was on the neonatal unit for eight weeks. Describing her experience during this time, Asya said: “It was really, really hard. One of the hardest things was the issue with pumping breast milk… I didn’t have that much milk, probably because of the trauma and being separated from him, but it was really important for me to maintain my supply so I can try to breastfeed him eventually.”
She told how scary it was for herself and her husband coming home from hospital and having to leave Daniel behind.
Doctors don’t yet know conclusively whether Covid or a urinary tract infection (UTI) contributed to Daniel’s premature birth.
However, Asya said: “If I’d had a possibility to get a vaccine, I would have done. I have had both the vaccines now and I’m going to get the booster. And I very much recommend that pregnant women get it. It’s really sad just to wonder what would have happened if I’d been able to be vaccinated then.”
Daniel is now well and healthy at 10 months old.
Throughout the experience Asya and her husband were supported by Camp Simcha, a national charity that supports seriously ill children in the Jewish community.
Daniel Gillis, its deputy chief executive and head of service, said the organisation had seen a 150 per cent increase in the number of premature and sick babies who needed support compared to 2020.
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