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November 22, 2021

Stillbirths are more prevalent since the delta variant emerged, CDC study finds

The pregnancy complication remains rare, but it's far more likely among women who contract COVID-19

Women's Health COVID-19
Pregnancy stillbirths COVID Boris Gonzalez/Pixabay

The delta variant has been linked to an increased risk of stillbirths in expectant mothers who contract the highly-contagious virus, according to a CDC study.

Pregnant women who contract the delta variant may have an increased risk of stillbirth or dying during childbirth, according to two studies conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

The studies expand on previous research examining the impact of COVID-19 on pregnancy, affirming an increased risk of complications that experts have observed since delta became the predominant coronavirus variant in July.

The studies examined the rates of stillbirth and pregnancy-related death throughout the pandemic, emphasizing the increased risk posed by the delta variant. 

Though stillbirths continue to be rare, researchers found they have increased throughout the pandemic, according to a study of 1.2 million pregnancies between March 2020 and September 2021. Prior to COVID, the stillbirth rate was .59%. 

It has essentially remained flat during the pandemic, at .64%, among people who never had COVID-19. But for expectant mothers who contracted the coronavirus, the stillbirth rate rose to .98%. And after the delta variant emerged in July, it surged to 2.7% in that group.

Dr. Ellie Ragsdale, director of fetal intervention at UH Cleveland Medical Center, told NBC News that experts have observed COVID-19 leading to "loads" of pregnancy complications, including premature delivery, abnormally high blood pressure and pregnancy loss. 

The study notes that stillbirths were associated with "certain underlying medical conditions and markers of maternal morbidity, including the need for intensive care." 

The other study examined the effect COVID-19 had on pregnancy-related deaths in Mississippi. Researchers found a ratio of nine deaths per 1,000 pregnant women who contracted COVID-19. Among women of reproductive age who did not get COVID-19, the death rate was just 2.5 deaths per 1,000 women. 

In all, researchers found 15 COVID-related deaths among women who were pregnant or had given birth within 90 days between March 2020 and October 2021. Most of them also had a chronic medical condition, but none were fully vaccinated. 

Nine of the women died after the emergence of the delta variant. The other six died prior to last summer. 

The researchers also found racial disparities among these deaths. Twelve of the 15 women who died were Black or Hispanic. By contrast, Black women accounted for an estimated 43% of all births during the same time period; Hispanic women accounted for 5%. 

People who are contract COVID-19 while pregnant, or in the weeks after, are at higher risk for severe illness, according to the CDC. Additional risk factors include having an underlying medical condition, being over age 25, working or living in settings that carry an increased risk of COVID-19 exposure and not being vaccinated. 

The CDC emphasizes that some people of color, particularly Black and Hispanic women, face health inequities and often are at higher risk for COVID-19 exposure and lack of access to health care.

The CDC recommends COVID-19 vaccination for people who are pregnant, trying to get pregnant, expect to become pregnant or breastfeeding. 

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