Study links COVID-19 infections in pregnant women to respiratory health issues in babies

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Babies born to mothers who contracted a COVID-19 infection while pregnant have “unusually high rates” of respiratory distress at birth or shortly after, a Nature Communications study found.

While studies have shown contracting COVID during pregnancy has been associated with adverse outcomes for both mothers and newborn babies, the authors of the study found there is growing concern for longer-term consequences for babies after they are born.

Previous studies found there were risks of maternal hypoxia and multiorgan failure, which may lead to premature delivery, as well as stillbirth and neurodevelopmental issues — but the recent study found that if a mother is exposed to COVID, it may inflame a newborn’s airway and lead to slower breathing rates, pale or blueish skin, flaring nostrils or a retraction of the chest with each breath.

While the study finds the virus creates an increased risk for respiratory issues for babies after birth, the risk of a mother transmitting the COVID-19 virus in utero remains low.

More than 200 women with COVID-19 were enrolled in the study in Los Angeles. None of the babies tested positive for the infection at birth, but about 17 percent were diagnosed with respiratory issues, which is higher than average for newborns.

Infants who were experiencing respiratory distress stayed in the hospital for about 24 days, Dr. Olivia Man, the study’s author, told NBC News, who first reported on the study.  

The point of time the mother contracted COVID during the pregnancy did not have an impact on whether the infant experienced respiratory distress.

Vaccination played a part in the study’s results. Unvaccinated mothers had three times the odds of respiratory distress in their babies compared with mothers who had at least one dose of the COVID vaccine.

If a mother contracts the infection, her body will produce more cytokines, which are involved in the body’s immune response and trigger inflammation. Inflammation in the mother may activate inflammation cells in the infant.

Man told NBC News that the doctors believe the COVID infection in the mother will cascade from the mother to the infant, who is “responding to their mother’s own inflammation.” Long-term consequences are not known yet, but Man said it could include asthma.

Not all mothers who contract COVID while pregnant will experience negative outcomes with their babies.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it is safe for a pregnant mother to receive the COVID vaccine at any point in the pregnancy, and it helps build antibodies that will protect the baby from contracting the virus.

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