Post-birth, however, health officials warn that infected moms should be cautious of close contact due to "respiratory droplets"

By Claudia Harmata and Stephanie Pfeffer
March 17, 2020 04:26 PM
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As the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) continues to spread across the globe, health officials are still learning about the impact on pregnant women and their babies. While there have been no widespread studies to determine whether pregnant women are at a greater risk of contracting the virus or of infected mothers passing it down to their babies, early anecdotal evidence shows pregnant women do not become more seriously ill than the rest of the population, and that mom-to-baby transmission is unlikely.

Still, pregnant women are considered a higher-risk population because of weakened immune systems and should be extra vigilant about hand washing and practicing social distancing, say health officials. “It is always important for pregnant women to protect themselves from illnesses,” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention wrote in an advisory notice. “Pregnant women experience changes in their bodies that may increase their risk of some infections.”

The virus does not seem to be making them seriously ill, however. Research shared on PubMed last week examined the severity of COVID-19 in cases reported in pregnant women. In a study of 16 pregnant women with lab-confirmed infection and 25 pregnant women with clinically diagnosed infection, all of the pregnant women had only mild illness. None were admitted to ICU.

The study also found no evidence of mother-to-baby transmission.

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Researchers with the World Health Organization came to a similar conclusion about mother-to-baby transmission. They tested samples of amniotic fluid, cord blood, vaginal discharge, newborn throat swabs and breast milk in women who tested positive for COVID-19 while pregnant. All results have come back negative for the virus, the global organization said.

Backing up this research is a small study published on Monday in Frontiers in Pediatrics, which followed four babies born to COVID-19 mothers in Wuhan, China. The infants were immediately removed from the mothers at birth and three out of the four were tested for the virus 72 hours later with the consent of the parents. All three tests came back negative.

However, the CDC reiterates that these findings are preliminary: “We still do not know if a pregnant woman with COVID-19 can pass the virus that causes COVID-19 to her fetus or baby during pregnancy or delivery.”

They add, “No infants born to mothers with COVID-19 have tested positive for the COVID-19 virus. In these cases, which are a small number, the virus was not found in samples of amniotic fluid or breastmilk.”

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However, the WHO and CDC differ on how infected mothers should approach breastfeeding and spending time with their newborn babies after birth.

The WHO guidelines shared last week encourage healthcare providers to allow new mothers and infants to remain together immediately after birth while maintaining skin-to-skin contact and breastfeeding.

The CDC, on the other hand, recommends newborns to be separated from a mother with confirmed or suspected COVID-19.

“To reduce the risk of transmission of the virus that causes COVID-19 from the mother to the newborn, facilities should consider temporarily separating (e.g., separate rooms) the mother who has confirmed COVID-19 or is a PUI from her baby until the mother’s transmission-based precautions are discontinued,” they state.

The CDC adds that should a mother want to give breastmilk, a pump should be provided by the hospital to reduce contact risk.

The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists is in agreement with the CDC’s stance, stating that while “the primary concern is not whether the virus can be transmitted through breastmilk,” health officials should be wary of transmission through respiratory droplets from the mother to baby during breastfeeding.

To combat this, the WHO suggests mothers wear medical masks and adhere to strict hand hygiene while in contact or breastfeeding their babies. Similarly, the CDC notes that if an infected mother wishes to breastfeed and remain in contact with her newborn, she should wear a face mask and wash her hands.

More information and clearer guidelines will likely be forthcoming. As of now, pregnant women should take extra care in following protocols established by the CDC when it comes to avoiding the spread of the virus.

As of Tuesday, Match 17, there have been at least 4,482 confirmed cases of coronavirus and 86 deaths in the U.S., according to a New York Times database. Globally, there have been at least 189,452 cases of the virus, with 7,505 deaths.

As information about the coronavirus pandemic rapidly changes, PEOPLE is committed to providing the most recent data in our coverage. Some of the information in this story may have changed after publication. For the latest on COVID-19, readers are encouraged to use online resources from CDC, WHO, and local public health departments and visit our coronavirus hub.