Story at a glance
- A new study was published that looked at 68 cases of perinatal deaths across 12 different countries.
- The results found that in each case the mother’s placenta was deprived of oxygen, leading to stillbirth or death of the baby within one week of being born.
- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates about 24,000 babies are stillborn every year in the U.S.
The risks pregnant women and babies face from COVID-19 are high, as a new study has found unvaccinated pregnant women who catch COVID-19 are at risk of delivering stillborn babies.
New research published in the Archives of Pathology & Laboratory Medicine this week found that in some cases where an unvaccinated pregnant mother caught COVID-19, the virus attacked the mother’s placenta and quickly led to stillbirth.
The placenta is a vital organ for fetuses to develop during a woman’s pregnancy, providing oxygen and nutrients to a growing baby.
David Schwartz, a perinatal pathologist in Atlanta, decided to study the effects of COVID-19 on pregnant mothers and their fetuses alongside a group of 44 international doctors. Schwartz’s team analyzed 68 perinatal deaths in 12 different countries with all 68 babies either dying within one week of being born or were stillborn.
A stillbirth is considered a death or loss of a baby before or during delivery, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defining stillbirths as a loss of a baby at or after 20 weeks of pregnancy. About 24,000 babies are stillborn in the U.S. every year.
Schwartz’s team found that among the 68 placentas of perinatal deaths, every single one had a condition called SARS-CoV-2 placentitis. That’s defined by three characteristics: fibrin deposition, an increase in clotting protein; multiple intervillous thrombi, known as cell death of the protective cell layer of the placenta; and an unusual inflammatory condition called chronic villitis.
Among the 68 perinatal deaths, 77 percent had placentas that had been destroyed and, “rendered useless for supporting critical fetal needs, resulting in stillbirth or early neonatal death,” explained Schwartz in a statement.
Researchers conducted 30 autopsies of the 68 perinatal deaths and found no abnormalities except for intrauterine hypoxia and asphyxia. Schwartz told Changing America that these babies essentially suffocated due to lack of oxygen being delivered to the placenta.
Schwartz explained that his study revealed that a COVID-19 infection acts differently than other fetal viruses, like the zika virus which is known to be passed from a pregnant woman directly to her fetus, resulting in certain birth defects.
Instead COVID-19 causes extensive damage to a pregnant woman’s placenta, causing a lack of oxygen to the fetus.
“The placental destruction is so severe that whether or not the fetus becomes infected might be irrelevant,” said Schwartz.
Schwartz’s findings are consistent with a separate study the CDC published in November last year that found stillbirths among pregnant mothers who tested positive for COVID-19 increased to 1.26 percent, compared to pregnant mothers who did not have the virus who had a .6 percent stillbirth rate, between March to September 2021.
From July to September 2021, during the delta wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, the CDC found stillbirths increased to 2.7 percent in pregnant mothers who tested positive for the virus.
The CDC says stillbirths are a rare outcome overall, but a COVID-19 diagnosis documented during the delivery hospitalization is associated with an increased risk for stillbirth.
There’s growing evidence that women who are pregnant and unvaccinated are at a higher risk of having serious complications if they test positive for COVID-19 and health officials have repeatedly said vaccines are a safe solution.
“Evidence about the safety and effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccination during pregnancy has been growing. These data suggest that the benefits of receiving a COVID-19 vaccine outweigh any known or potential risks of vaccination during pregnancy,” says the CDC.
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