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Having lived through the grief of eight miscarriages, Leah Betts was naturally focused on maintaining the best possible health when she was trying to conceive her third child.
As she underwent IVF this year, the idea of getting vaccinated against COVID-19 was making her “really nervous” that it could cause something to go wrong with the pregnancy.
Pregnant mother Leah Betts is helping spread the message that COVID-19 vaccination is safe for pregnant women and could spare them extreme illness, to themselves or their baby.Credit:Justin McManus
Happily, she is now 15 weeks’ pregnant. She is also double vaccinated after learning about the grave risks to mothers and unborn babies of COVID-19, and the large amount of global research showing vaccination is safe.
Unvaccinated pregnant women are being treated in every Melbourne ICU, say fertility specialists who are concerned about the number of pregnant women or those intending to become pregnant who are asking for vaccine exemptions.
Ms Betts, who runs several businesses, says she was not worried for her own health, but feared vaccination “might do something to the baby, or that it might cause some defect later on in life”.
She knows women at either end of the reproductive spectrum who are also still very hesitant about vaccination, even with more than 80 per cent of eligible Australians double vaccinated and doctors warning pregnant women who catch COVID-19 that they are more likely to end up in intensive care.
Despite a large amount of international data showing vaccination is safe for mothers and babies, one hesitant acquaintance of Ms Betts who is 25 and hoping for children was convinced by conspiracy theories that “it [COVID-19 vaccination] hasn’t been around long enough” to be safe.
Another, who is in her 40s and pregnant, held out against vaccination due to fears based on wrong information, until her child’s childcare centre had a COVID-19 scare.
Kate Stern, Associate Professor of obstetrics and gynaecology at the University of Melbourne, Royal Women’s Hospital and Ms Betts’ fertility specialist, said she is “asked every day” about exemptions based on vaccine misinformation.
“There are pregnant women in all the Melbourne hospitals [with COVID-19], there are pregnant women in ICUs,” she said.
Associate Professor Kate Stern, of the Royal Women’s Hospital and Melbourne IVF is asked “every day” for vaccine exemptions by women who have read misinformation about the vaccines.Credit:Eddie Jim
“Young women trying to get pregnant are always worried about optimising their health and they’re worried the initial [vaccine] studies didn’t consider pregnancy. We now have multiple studies showing no increased risk of miscarriage or birth defects, or increased risk of sperm abnormality or egg dysfunction,” Professor Stern said.
Dr Lyndon Hale, medical director at Melbourne IVF and director of reproductive surgery at the Royal Women’s Hospital, said a pregnant patient told him recently that she would wait until after her baby was born to be vaccinated.
“I said to her, that is the most stupid decision you will make in your life because we know you are eight-times more likely to miscarry and 10 times more likely to end up in ICU, and may lose your baby,” he said.
“Having helped someone do IVF treatment, and knowing how desperately they want that baby, to then think they might put it at risk because of misinformation is appalling to me.”
‘There are pregnant women in every ICU in Melbourne.’
Due to the growing baby pushing up into the mother’s diaphragm, making breathing more difficult, the risk from COVID-19 to unvaccinated mothers and their babies increases as the pregnancy advances.
“When you breathe in, your [the mother’s] body takes every skerrick of oxygen it can and your baby gets what’s left, which means the baby could end up dying or being brain-damaged,” said Dr Hale.
There had been foetal death in utero due to the virus, he said, and babies in distress had needed to be delivered prematurely by emergency caesarean. “There are pregnant women in every ICU in Melbourne,” said Dr Hale.
Professor Michelle Giles, an infectious diseases physician and maternal immunisation expert at Monash University and the Doherty Institute, warned that “the data shows if you get it, particularly in the second or third trimester, there is more risk of admission to hospital, ICU, needing to be ventilated and pre-term birth – the only way of preventing that is with vaccination”.
It was a myth that vaccination had a negative impact on the chances of conception for women undergoing fertility treatment or trying to get pregnant naturally.
Ms Betts said that once she had had the risk of miscarriage or stillbirth due to COVID-19 explained to her, and as Victoria’s infection rate climbed, she became nervous about catching it and was “so grateful” by the time she had her second jab.
She advises those who may still be hesitant to get advice from their doctor rather than the internet: “Usually the information you get from Dr Google is not the right information.”
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