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COVID-19 kills pregnant and post-partum Brazilians, leaving orphans

Martha Viotti Beck, Bloomberg News on

Published in News & Features

“My daughter got COVID in the hospital,” Edilene Carneiro said. “She was already weak, but she might have survived if she’d been put in an isolated room.” The 53-year-old hairdresser is helping raise her granddaughter.The government has moved pregnant women into the priority category for vaccinations, but a widespread shortage of shots has states suspending immunizations every few weeks. Brazil has deployed 51 million vaccines so far, enough to cover 16% of the population with one dose and to fully inoculate about 8%.

Officials are also considering a cash-handout program to help the orphans, people familiar with the matter said.

While elsewhere in the Americas pregnant women contract COVID-19, far fewer of them die. The highest case count is in the U.S., according to the Pan American Health Organization. Brazil also lags Peru, Argentina, Chile, Colombia and Mexico. But its fatality rate is almost 10 times the number for the Americas.

Underreporting and a lack of data makes the problem harder to track. Brazil's health ministry doesn't break down the figures in its website, and didn't reply to requests for an official number. Observatorio Obstetrico Brasileiro COVID-19, the group that follows the issue in Brazil, says 4,031 pregnant women or women who gave birth were infected with coronavirus just in the first four months of 2021, with 494 deaths.

Several hospitals turned into COVID-19 treatment centers, which left future mothers more fragile, said Rossana Francisco, a professor at Sao Paulo University Medical Department and a member of the group. When pregnant women started to show up sick, hospitals sent them to units specializing in prenatal care. It became harder to get the proper treatment.

 

An additional problem, she said, is that there isn’t a clear protocol on how to handle a pregnant woman with COVID-19. Doctors have concerns, for example, about laying these patients in a prone position, which is common for those being treated for the disease. Pregnant women also have more oxygenation problems and usually need intubation earlier than other COVID-19 patients, but it is not unusual for doctors to delay that procedure out of concern for the babies.

“Pregnant women do not get COVID-19 more easily, but their infection is more serious,” Francisco said.

The decision to add pregnant women and new mothers to the priority vaccination group comes too late and should be a warning for others, says Fatima Marinho, an epidemiologist and senior adviser at Vital Strategies.

“The Brazilian government neglected pregnant women from the start of the pandemic,” she said.

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