Fetal doctor explains support behind pregnant women getting vaccinated

Jan 24, 2022 | News

Fetal physiologist Deborah Sloboda suggests pregnant women speak with a trusted healthcare professional if they’re debating getting their COVID-19 vaccine.

Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario, The Hospital for Sick Children, McMaster Children’s Hospital and Kingston Health Sciences Centre released a joint statement earlier this month urging pregnant women to get vaccinated.

The announcement was the result of increased infant admissions. And as admissions increased, so did the amount of Canadian research on COVID-19 vaccinations and pregnant women.

While studies are essential, science nomenclature might overwhelm the average pregnant woman trying to make the right decision.

Sloboda, a McMaster University professor, wears many hats in the fetal and maternal research realm. A few of her roles include being the founder of Sloboda Lab, co-president of the Developmental Origins of Health and Disease Society of Canada, and holding a Tier 2 Canada Research Chair in Perinatal Programming.

In an interview with Humber News, Sloboda broke down some complex topics surrounding vaccines and pregnant women.

She said the bottom line is that women should always speak to a trusted healthcare professional.

“Know that your doctor wants to protect you and your baby,” she said.

Fiona McAra, a pregnant teacher, has followed Sloboda’s advice.

Her trust in her doctors convinced her to receive her second dose while pregnant, she said.

When it comes to which vaccine to get, Sloboda suggests considering mRNA SARS-CoV-2, as it’s proved to be safe and effective.

She said the mRNA in vaccines are only briefly in the body and aren’t passed to an infant via the placenta or breast milk. Rather, the vaccine is like an “instruction manual” for the immune system.

“But antibodies generated as part of the immune response to the vaccine are passed to the infant via the placenta and breastmilk,” she said.

So vaccination in pregnancy provides antibodies, not mRNA, to the infant.

Babies growing in the womb are entirely dependent on their pregnant mother, Sloboda said.

“It’s important that the mother is safe, healthy, and free from infection, to be able to provide the oxygen, nutrients and all the other good things the baby needs during pregnancy,” she said.

Once born, babies are extremely vulnerable to infections because of minimal immune protection.

Sloboda said it takes about a year for their “adaptive” immune response to function properly.

Pregnant women help protect their at-risk little ones by providing antibodies via the placenta or breast milk.

A recent study published on JAMA Pediatr looked at 130 pregnant women who received the BNT162b2 mRNA vaccine during their second trimester. The study showed antibody titers, a blood test that determines the presence and levels of antibodies, were positive for all women during delivery, representing 100 per cent placental antibody transfer.

Sloboda said not all studies have reported that all babies have antibodies after maternal vaccination, but reported rates are generally greater than 95 per cent.

Jessica Breznik, a PhD in medical sciences, pathology and molecular medicine, says COVID-19 vaccines are safe for pregnant women.

Jessica Breznik, a PhD in medical sciences, pathology and molecular medicine, says COVID-19 vaccines are safe for pregnant women. Photo credit: Sydney Vardja

Scientist Jessica A. Breznik, a former PhD student of Sloboda’s, said the answer is simple when comparing vaccine brands.

There is no superior brand. And up until the COVID-19 pandemic, the public was never typically told the “brand” of a vaccine, she said.

“There are effective and safe vaccines from a variety of different manufacturers in routine use…,” Breznik said. “They are made by accredited companies, some of which are now making our COVID-19 vaccines.”

She said there are minor differences in formulation, but they essentially all do the same thing: train immune systems.

Breznik said that as per Health Canada guidelines, it’s recommended that a complete vaccine series with an mRNA COVID-19 vaccine is preferentially offered to those in the authorized age groups who are pregnant or breastfeeding.

However, while mRna is the first suggestion, Health Canada said a viral vector vaccine may be offered. A viral vector vaccine uses a modified version of a virus to instruct cells.

This may be offered when other vaccines are inaccessible, or not recommended to a specific patient due to potential health risks.