Just 15% of pregnant women in the UK are fully vaccinated, according to data from the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) – and it’s putting women at risk of hospitalisation and fatal illness.
Dr Edward Morris, president of the RCOG, said the number of pregnant women needing urgent Covid care has increased this year.
“We are particularly concerned that in July and August this year more pregnant women were admitted to critical care with symptoms of Covid-19 than at any other point during the pandemic,” he said.
“Data from the Intensive Care National Audit and Research Centre (ICNARC) show around 20 pregnant women were admitted for critical care in March 2020, 45 in January 2021 and 80 this July.”
There has also been more deaths of pregnant women in this third wave than either of the previous two waves. Dr Morris said these are “vaccine preventable deaths”.
“The MBRRACE-UK Confidential Enquiry into Maternal Deaths has reported 13 pregnant or recently pregnant women died with Covid-19 in the third wave, 11 in the second and nine in the first,” he said.
A worrying percentage of pregnant women admitted to hospital due to Covid-19 require a therapy called Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation (ECMO), which is used only when a patient’s lungs are so damaged that a ventilator can’t maintain oxygen levels.
Of all women between the ages of 16 and 49 on ECMO in intensive care, pregnant women make up almost a third (32%) – up from just 6% at the start of the pandemic in March 2020.
So, what needs to change?
In light of the figures, members of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) told the Guardian that efforts to promote the booster vaccine will not be enough to curb hospitalisations and deaths. Instead, they urged ministers to focus on encouraging those who’ve yet to be vaccinated to come forward for their first jab – especially pregnant women.
Women also need easily accessible, up-to-date information about the vaccine.
Conspiracy theories have been blamed for vaccine hesitancy, but the reality is that pregnant women received mixed messages about the jab earlier in the pandemic and clear, robust information about the safety of the vaccine was not distributed fast enough.
Women are understandably cautious about having the vaccine during pregnancy, so they need to be armed with the most up-to-date facts to make their decision.
Claire Bromley, 33 from Kent, was hesitant about having the vaccine, but ended up catching Covid and being put into a medically induced coma while pregnant.
“I completely understand the hesitation not to get vaccinated when you are growing a child inside you, and, after experiencing two miscarriages before the pandemic, the fear of being pregnant again with the worry of Covid was sending my anxiety through the roof,” she said.
“But, after what happened, I can honestly say that the risk of not having the Covid vaccine far outweighs any doubts about having it.”
Misinformation is so rife, it’s even being spread by those meant to care for pregnant women. Numerous pregnant women on social media have shared experiences of being dissuaded from getting the vaccine by midwives, or turned away from vaccine centres.
Ami Amin, 38, from north west London, previously told HuffPost UK that the vaccine was not mentioned during any of her midwife appointments during pregnancy. After doing her own research, she decided to get the jab – but was then faced with misinformation at the vaccine centre.
“When I filled out the form to say that I was pregnant, the lady vaccinating me just looked really alarmed,” said Amin. “She said: ’You know that they haven’t confirmed that it’s safe for pregnant people to have the vaccine, don’t you?′
“I got my phone out and showed her a flurry of articles that I had on my internet history, showing that it was now considered safe and actually, it has been for a while.”
Women deserve better care. The NHS has now urged pregnant women to come forward for their vaccine and explicitly told vaccines centres to welcome and support pregnant women.
“Pregnant women should not be turned away from NHS vaccination centres and women should continue to come forward for the lifesaving Covid vaccine – they can make a booking through the national booking service online or by calling 119 anytime between 7am and 11pm seven days a week,” an NHS spokesperson said in a statement.
“The NHS has advised midwifery staff to give pregnant women the information they need to make the right decision for them and their baby so if you are pregnant and have any concerns, please come forward and discuss them with a healthcare professional.”
Gill Walton, chief executive of the Royal College of Midwives (RCM), wants to reiterate the importance of pregnant women having the vaccine, due to the risks associated with catching Covid-19 while pregnant.
“Having COVID-19 during pregnancy, particularly in the later stages, can have serious consequences for both mothers and their babies. It can double the chance of stillbirth and triples the chance of a preterm birth, which can have long term health impact for the baby,” she said. “We know that the vaccine is a safe and effective way of preventing this, with hundreds of thousands of pregnant women worldwide having been vaccinated with no adverse effects.”
She also encouraged pregnant women to have their free flu jab as we approach flu season. “If you have any questions about either vaccine please speak to your midwife, obstetrician or GP so you can get all the facts and make the right decision.”