EDINBURGH, Scotland (StudyFinds.org) – COVID-19 during pregnancy can lead to long-term birth complications, according to a new study. Researchers from the University of Edinburgh found an increased risk of premature birth, stillbirths, and newborn deaths in women infected with SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) 28 days before their due date. Most women with COVID-19 related complications were more likely to be unvaccinated.

The findings suggest safety measures for preventing infection, such as getting the COVID-19 vaccine, are crucial in protecting the health of newborns. Researchers emphasize the need for more efforts to encourage vaccination in pregnant women. Researchers note that mothers-to-be have lower vaccination rates than the general population, despite the risk of severe complications for both mother and child.

“It is clear that vaccination is the safest and most effective way for pregnant women to protect themselves and their babies from severe Covid-19 disease,” says study co-author Rachael Wood, a consultant with Public Health Scotland, in a university release. “Vaccination can be given at any stage of pregnancy, so I strongly encourage women who are pregnant, or hoping to become pregnant, to get fully vaccinated as soon as possible.”

Just 1 in 3 pregnant women are vaccinated

Between December 2020 and October 2021, the research team collected data on hospitalization and vaccine uptake for over 87,000 pregnant women living in Scotland.

As of October 2021, just 32 percent of pregnant women received their full COVID vaccination, compared to the 77 percent of nonpregnant women between 18 and 44 years-old. Since the vaccine rollout began in Scotland, there have been 4,950 COVID-19 cases among pregnant women.

About 77 percent of these cases during pregnancy are among unvaccinated women. Twelve percent of pregnant women with COVID-19 had one vaccine dose or tested positive for COVID 14 days before their second dose.

Risk of perinatal deaths going up

When looking at perinatal deaths — a baby dying in the womb after 24 weeks of pregnancy or within 28 days of delivery — the team found a concerning link to COVID-19 infection rates. For every 1,000 births, the team recorded 23 perinatal deaths. However, all of the perinatal deaths involved unvaccinated women.

The study also finds a 17-percent increase in the number of premature births among women with COVID three weeks before their due date. The general perinatal mortality rate in Scotland is six per every 1,000 births and the preterm birth rate is typically eight percent.

Unvaccinated pregnant women were more likely than vaccinated pregnant women to require hospitalization and critical care. About 98 percent of hospitalizations among pregnant women admitted to critical care involved unvaccinated patients.

The study appears in the journal Nature Medicine.