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Vaccine safety still a concern for pregnant women and new mothers

Michael Donlan
Stephane Myers

Being a parent is hard enough with difficult decisions to make each day. Now add a choice that could make a difference between life or death – even before the bundle of joy is born.

Pregnant women must decide whether to take a COVID-19 vaccine, without knowing the long-term effects of the new inoculation, or risk catching the virus.

However, one factor that may tip the scales towards taking the vaccine are recent studies, such as one from out of the University of Florida from late this summer. It strongly suggests the vaccine could protect not only the mother, but also may help protect nursing infants from the illness.

“We had over 20 in our study, all healthcare workers, so we could get an idea as to what the response is in the mother and mother’s milk,” said Josef Neu, M.D., one of the study’s co-authors and a professor in the UF College of Medicine’s department of pediatrics, division of neonatology.

“We certainly saw some antibodies in the milk after the first shot and after a second we had a big response. We do know the antibody is there and it tells us we have a new tool in the tool box.”

The University of Florida study was conducted between December 2020 and March 2021, when the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines first became available to health care workers.

For the study, researchers recruited 21 lactating health care workers who had never contracted COVID-19. The research team sampled the mothers’ breast milk and blood three times: before vaccination, after the first dose and after the second dose.

Neu added he has noticed many COVID-positive women ended up delivering prematurely, however the virus does not appear to transfer to the infant in utero.

“Even if the mom is positive, the baby is unlikely to get it through the placenta,” he said. “However, if the mom is actually positive after the baby is born, there is a possibility she can pass it on to baby and caretakers, and spread the disease further.”

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which recommends the vaccine to pregnant women, inoculation rates have been low, about 20%. As of Sept. 27, there are more than 125,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases among pregnant women nationally, with 22,000 hospitalizations, which resulted in 161 deaths as of August 2021. Almost all cases were not vaccinated.

Dr. Alexandra J. Walker, who specializes in Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of Florida Health Jacksonville, decided to take the vaccine in December before the studies came out. She was in her third trimester of pregnancy at that time.

“Using my medical background and sense of what is best, knowing the vaccine is shown to generally be safe in the general population, I felt it would probably be beneficial, but there is hesitation,” she said.

Walker said she has seen a handful of unvaccinated mothers die, just a couple of weeks after they gave birth.

“These are moms who will never meet their babies and babies will never meet their moms,” she added. “It’s largely preventable so it’s sad.”

Despite the CDC now recommending pregnant women take the vaccine, many are still worried about potential complications down the road.

Stephane Myers is a prime example.

The Fort Myers resident is not opposed to the vaccine. She’s just being extra cautious and echoes the same concerns many, pregnant or not, have reiterated: lack of trust, mixed messages by the government and not enough data.

“How can scientists truly say that the COVID vaccine is 95 percent effective after only 9 months?” she said. “Vaccines go through vigorous testing. There has not been enough testing or trials on pregnant women to know it's safety or effectiveness on mother or child.”

Instead, she’s doing what she feels is best for her family.

“My best bet is to keep myself and my family safe. Eat good foods and take my herbal supplements. Stay indoors and wear my mask when I'm outdoors. I will be having a home birth and keeping my baby safe until this thing passes,” Myers said. “Maybe I will take the vaccine in the future, after more time and testing has proven vaccines safe and effective, but until then, I pass.”

For more conversation about this topic, listen to this Gulf Coast Life episode: Lee Health Physicians Discuss COVID-19 Vaccine Safety for Pregnant Women and New Mothers | WGCU PBS & NPR for Southwest Florida