COVID vaccination rates are low in pregnant people. Experts say misinformation is partly to blame.

Experts say pregnant people are particularly vulnerable to misinformation about the COVID-19 vaccine. (Getty Images)

Catching COVID-19 while pregnant comes with a number of risks. Infected pregnant women have a higher risk of severe illness — and, according to a new meta-analysis of 12 studies involving more than 13,000 pregnant women, a “significantly increased” risk of maternal death compared with uninfected pregnant women — as well as complications in childbirth. pregnancy, premature births, and stillbirths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Despite the high risks, vaccination rates remain low for this vulnerable group.

The research showed that, compared to women who were trying to conceive, nursing mothers and other women in general, pregnant women had the lowest vaccination rates – about 30% of pregnant women in the US did not complete the primary series of vaccines – and vaccine acceptance is “significantly lower” during pregnancy.

As a result, health organizations, including the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the CDC, continue to encourage pregnant women, or those considering pregnancy, to get vaccinated.

So what is causing this vaccine hesitancy in pregnant people? Experts share this.

Why are pregnant women in particular experiencing COVID vaccine hesitancy?

Part of the hesitation may stem from the fact that initially pregnant people were excluded from clinical trials for vaccines and, as a result, had less confidence in their safety.

Dr. Alisa Kachikis, a maternal-fetal medicine specialist and assistant professor in the department of obstetrics and gynecology at UW Medicine, points out that it is “very normal” for expectant mothers to ask questions about medications and vaccines during pregnancy because “they want to do the best thing possible for your babies.” She told Yahoo Life: “There are always questions about any vaccine recommended for pregnancy.”

In the case of the COVID vaccine, she says, “initially there were concerns because only a little bit of safety data was available when pregnant people became eligible for COVID-19 vaccines,” adding that we now have “really robust data on vaccine safety.” COVID-19 given during pregnancy, especially compared to the risks of COVID-19 infection during pregnancy.”

Underestimating the actual risk of disease is another possible factor. “Pregnant individuals are typically young and healthy,” said Dr. Mark Turrentine, professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital, told Yahoo Life. “Perhaps there are misperceptions that they won’t ‘get sick’ with this condition. This feeling of being ‘protected’, together with concerns about the safety of the vaccine or the – albeit unfounded – distrust of a ‘new’ vaccine leads to the underutilization of this preventive measure”.

How Misinformation and Vaccine Anxiety Create the ‘Perfect Storm of Worry’

Both experts and organizations, including the Kaiser Family Foundation, point to “widespread” misinformation as a major culprit behind vaccine hesitancy. Turrentine says some pregnant people have “absolutely” fallen victim to misinformation about COVID vaccines.

“While social media can be an easy way to access information, it’s not filtered,” says Turrentine. “Unfortunately, sensationalism gets attention. Therefore, claims not supported by evidence can make good headlines – or lead to more link clicks – and misleading information can result in harm to the individual,” including recommendations not to be vaccinated while pregnant.

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, about 3 in 10 women who are pregnant or planning to become pregnant believe at least one of three false statements about pregnancy and vaccines, such as “Pregnant women should not receive the COVID-19 vaccine” and “It is not safe for women who are breastfeeding to receive a COVID-19 vaccine,” as well as “COVID vaccines have been shown to cause infertility” — neither of which are true.

“Without a doubt, pregnant people are particularly vulnerable to misinformation about the COVID vaccine,” said Dr. Michael Cackovic, a specialist in maternal-fetal medicine and associate clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center, tells Yahoo Life.

This is likely due to the increased feelings of anxiety that can come with pregnancy. “While there’s a lot of joy in pregnancy, it’s also a time of change and responsibility,” says Cackovic, “and over 10% of expectant mothers complain of increased anxiety. Add that to all the COVID vaccine questions that are rampant, and you have a perfect storm of worry about your pregnancy and baby.

How safe are COVID vaccines for pregnant women?

COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective for people who are pregnant, according to the CDC. As of Jan. 7, 2023, nearly 72% of pregnant women in the U.S. have received the COVID vaccination before or during pregnancy, notes Turrentine. “Therefore, millions of women have been immunized with the COVID-19 vaccine and no concerns for the safety of mother or baby have been observed,” he says.

Research shows that vaccination during pregnancy helps protect both mother and baby (thanks to maternal antibodies that are passed to babies in utero and through breast milk), which reduces the risk of COVID-related hospitalization in children younger than 6 months . This is particularly significant as babies younger than 6 months old are not yet eligible for COVID vaccines.

Kachikis explains that one of the “wonderful” functions of the placenta during pregnancy is to help protect newborns from infections by “transferring as many antibodies as possible from the mother, or germ fighters, to the baby in the womb. When the baby is born, the mother’s antibodies in the baby help protect babies from really serious illnesses like neonatal tetanus and whooping cough.”

Getting the full COVID-19 series and especially a booster can boost COVID antibody levels in expectant mothers to provide even more antibodies for the placenta to transfer to their babies, Kachikis says. “This is a great way to provide the best possible start for newborn babies in terms of protecting against COVID-19,” she adds.

Turrentine says it’s important to assess your personal risk when it comes to COVID and that pregnant women “should be allowed to make their own decision” about whether or not to get the vaccine. “That said, I would like to encourage all pregnant women to protect themselves from a virus that could potentially be fatal for them and harmful to their unborn baby,” he says.

Cackovic agrees, saying: “The vaccine is our best defense against viruses, as always. They are safe, proven and effective. Getting vaccinated should be the first step to protecting your new baby.”

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COVID vaccination rates are low in pregnant people. Experts say misinformation is partly to blame.

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