Vaccine Conundrum for Pregnant and Lactating Women

Despite pronouncements on the safety of the COVID-19 vaccine for pregnant women, health workers have been turning many away. With increased restrictions being placed on unvaccinated people, expecting and lactating women are in limbo.

When the vaccine against COVID-19 was introduced in the country in February Sithandekile Mpofu from Gwanda District who was two months pregnant learnt that she could not get vaccinated because of her condition. Six months down the line Mpofu who is now eight months pregnant fears for the safety of her unborn child if she gets vaccinated. She has heard several perceptions about the COVID-19 vaccine and its effects on pregnant women and lactating mothers which have left her in doubt.

Mpofu says calls from the government for everyone to get vaccinated have brought so much pressure on her. “I’m afraid to get vaccinated against COVID-19 as I’m pregnant and fear that the vaccine might affect my unborn child. Other pregnant ladies that I have talked to have said they fear getting vaccinated as they don’t want to give birth to stillborn babies or disabled children,” says Mpofu.

“When the vaccine was first introduced I was told by health workers that I couldn’t get vaccinated as it might affect my unborn child,” she says. She says she has seen various reports from health officials saying the COVID-19 vaccine is safe for pregnant women and lactating mothers. Mpofu says she does not trust these reports and fears risking the life of her unborn child.

Chiedza Moyo from Umzingwane District who is four months pregnant says she is getting pressure from her employers as they are threatening to fire her if she is not vaccinated.Moyo says she visited a local health centre to get vaccinated but they turned her back. She says she is now conflicted on what to do and what is safe for her unborn child.

“If health workers tell me that they can’t vaccinate me when I’m pregnant then I don’t know what to do. On one end we are being told to get vaccinated by health experts while on the ground health workers are telling us that they haven’t received official communication to vaccinate us. This just leaves us in a predicament as pregnant women. My employees are also putting pressure on me as they are saying I risk infecting my workmates if I’m not vaccinated. I now don’t know what to do,” Moyo says.

The government is slowly setting vaccination as a prerequisite to access various services. Recently churches were given the green light to resume physical services with only congregants fully vaccinated against COVID-19 allowed to attend. Restaurants have also been given the green light to offer sit in services for only vaccinated clients.

Cinemas and theatres can now allow 50 per cent sitting capacity of vaccinated clients, and all workers should be vaccinated. National art galleries across the country have opened to vaccinated clients only and all workers should be vaccinated. Gymnasia, health spas and fitness centres have been permitted to open only to vaccinated clientele while all sports clubs have been instructed to ensure that their coaches, managers and any support staff are vaccinated.

Victoria Sibanda from Gwanda District who is a lactating mother says she has heard that the vaccine can affect her baby as it can be passed through breastmilk. She says she has also heard that it can dry her breast milk.

Sibanda says all these perceptions have left her uncertain. “I fear getting vaccinated as I’m breastfeeding my six-month-old baby. I heard that if I get vaccinated my breast milk will dry out or the vaccine might affect the baby as I will pass it onto her through breastmilk. What makes the situation even more difficult is that health workers are not even sure about what is best for us as lactating mothers,” she says.

A health worker at the Gwanda Provincial Hospital who prefers anonymity says the last official communication they received from the Ministry of Health and Child Care was that they should not vaccinate pregnant women and lactating mothers. The official says they are yet to receive official communication to start vaccinating them.

Scientists, including Zimbabwe’s COVID-19 coordinator, recommend vaccines for breastfeeding women. A recent study found that vaccines create protective antibodies in breastmilk. Scientists also recommend vaccines for pregnant women.

According to recent media reports Dr Agnes Mahomva, the Chief Coordinator for COVID-19 in Zimbabwe, says it is safe for lactating mothers to take the vaccine. She says scientifically vaccines that do not replicate in body cells do not pose any risk for lactating mothers and their infants.

The America’s Centres for Disease Control (CDC) says COVID-19 vaccines are thought not to be a risk to lactating people or their breastfeeding babies hence lactating mothers can receive a COVID-19 vaccine.

According to a study, published in April in the peer-reviewed Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) vaccines also offer extra protection.

The study shows that a COVID-19 vaccination creates extra secretion of antibodies in breast milk for up to 6 weeks after vaccination. “Antibodies found in the breast milk of these women showed strong neutralising effects, suggesting a potential protective effect against infection in the infant.”

According to the report, no mother or infant experienced any serious side effects during their study period. South Africa’s Health Products Regulatory Authority (Sahpra) also recommends the vaccine for both pregnant and breastfeeding moms.

Sahpra said on April 29: “The developmental and health benefits of breastfeeding should be considered along with the mother’s clinical need for immunisation against COVID-19. It must be noted that the WHO does not recommend discontinuing breastfeeding after vaccination.”

A senior health official who prefers anonymity says the country is yet to release an official statement on vaccination of pregnant women and lactating mothers. In the meantime, these women can only ponder on what is safe for them and their babies.

Source: The Citizen Bulletin

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