Study Indicates Potential Health Risks for Babies Born to Mothers with COVID-19 During Pregnancy

by Ella

New evidence is emerging regarding the potential health impacts on infants born to mothers who contracted COVID-19 during pregnancy, more than four years since the virus first emerged. A recent study published in Nature Communications suggests that such infants have notably high rates of respiratory distress at birth or shortly thereafter.


The study, led by researchers from the University College London (UCL), involved 221 pregnant women with COVID-19, primarily Black or Hispanic women in Los Angeles. Although none of the nearly 200 babies born between April 2020 and August 2022 tested positive for COVID-19 at birth, approximately 17% were diagnosed with respiratory distress, exceeding the average among newborns, typically estimated at 5% to 7%.


Respiratory distress, defined in the study as exhibiting at least two out of four symptoms, included a slow breathing rate, pale or bluish skin, flaring nostrils, or a retraction of the chest with each breath.


Dr. Olivia Man, the lead author of the study, emphasized the severity of the situation, noting that the average hospital stay for these infants was around 24 days, indicating a significant impact on their health.


Previous research has highlighted various risks associated with COVID-19 during pregnancy, including an increased risk of severe illness and death for the mother, preterm birth, stillbirth, and neurodevelopmental issues in the first year of a child’s life.

The new study also explored the impact of vaccination status on infants. Babies born to unvaccinated mothers were found to have three times the odds of respiratory distress compared to those born to mothers who had received at least one mRNA vaccine dose.

While the exact reasons behind these health issues remain under investigation, the leading hypothesis is inflammation. When a pregnant person contracts COVID-19, the body may increase the production of cytokines—proteins involved in the immune response—that trigger inflammation. This inflammation could potentially affect the baby either by inflammatory proteins crossing the placenta or by activating immune cells in the placenta, which, in turn, activate immune cells in the infant.

The study found elevated levels of inflammatory proteins in blood samples taken from the newborns, suggesting a potential link between the mother’s inflammation and the infant’s response.

Dr. Mary Prahl, an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco, highlighted that there seems to be a signaling mechanism on the infant side, activating an inflammatory response to combat perceived issues.

While not all babies born to mothers with COVID-19 during pregnancy experience negative outcomes, the study underscores the importance of understanding potential risks and taking precautions. It emphasizes the significance of vaccination during pregnancy as a measure to mitigate health risks for both mothers and infants.

Experts recommend that COVID-19 vaccines are safe at any point during pregnancy, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) doesn’t specify an ideal trimester. Vaccination is encouraged to provide protection for both the pregnant individual and the newborn.

Research suggests that getting vaccinated during the early third trimester may maximize antibody levels transferred to babies. However, experts caution against waiting solely for this reason and emphasize the importance of prioritizing the pregnant individual’s health.

As the scientific community continues to study the long-term consequences, including potential impacts on the respiratory system and other health aspects, pregnant individuals are urged to consult with healthcare professionals to make informed decisions about vaccination and overall well-being.


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