Pregnant Quebecers waiting to get COVID-19 vaccine are risking baby's life, doctors say

Doctors worry pregnant Quebecers are delaying their first COVID-19 vaccine appointments as cases in the province decline.

Province suggests the wait partly explains lower vaccination rates among young people

New mother Angela MacDonald said she weighed the risks and benefits before getting the COVID-19 vaccine. (Valeria Cori-Manocchio/CBC)

As Quebec records its lowest number of daily COVID-19 cases, Dr. Isabelle Boucoiran says she's seeing a concerning trend among her pregnant patients.

The gynecologist-obstetrician from the CHU Sainte-Justine says patients who were once eager to get their first jab of the COVID-19 vaccine are either waiting until after the delivery to get vaccinated or choosing to skip the shot altogether.

"We have to respect their choice, but it's really important that they understand why it is recommended for them and that all the scientific society thinks that it is safe and it's okay," she told CBC's Daybreak.

Officials are concerned pregnant Quebecers' hesitation could expose them to COVID just as public health precautions are being eased and the delta variant is on the rise.

Currently in Quebec, the age groups with the lowest vaccination rates are 18-to-29-year-olds (69 per cent) and 30-to-39-year-olds (74 per cent).

In a statement to CBC News, a spokesperson from the Ministry of Health and Social Services (MSSS) said some pregnant women's fear of receiving the vaccine could be one of the reasons behind the low turnout.

Pregnant women became eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine in Quebec on April 28.

Dangers of complacency

Dr. Donald Vinh, an infectious diseases specialist at the McGill University Health Centre, says the province gradually reopening shouldn't make expecting mothers complacent.

"We have to remember that things are looking good because of the vaccine," he said.

Vaccination protects not only the mother, but also the baby, who will be protected by the mother's immune system in the womb and for the first six to 12 months of life.

"If the mother doesn't pass on COVID antibodies to the baby, then that baby will be a sitting duck for getting COVID infections when they're born," he said. "And who knows when they're born what variants will be circulating."

He is urging mothers-to-be who are on the fence not to take chances because unvaccinated pregnant women who get COVID-19 are more likely to need intensive care and experience a preterm birth.

Pregnant patients are more vulnerable to catching COVID because their immune systems are suppressed and their survival rates if they do catch it are worse than other people their age, if they have pre-existing health conditions.

New mother Angela MacDonald got her first dose in April, just two weeks after giving birth to her son, Charlie.

Her biggest concern about getting the shot was how it would affect her baby's health while she was breastfeeding, but after doing her own research, she realized the benefits of the vaccine outweighed its side effects.

"The pros in terms of getting vaccinated is peace of mind," MacDonald said. "Making sure that we're doing our best to put our best foot forward in terms of keeping COVID out of our household as well as our family's household." 

"If you're someone who's getting vaccinated themselves you're making the choice for yourself but in this case, you're making the choice for not only yourself, but your child." 

According to the province's public health institute (INSPQ), 13,360 first doses were administered to pregnant women between Dec. 14, 2020 and July 8, 2021.

While it's hard to know exactly how many pregnant women there are at any given time in Quebec, on average there are about 82,000 births a year.

Dr. Boucoiran is reminding hesitant patients that despite literature on the COVID-19 vaccine being fairly new, vaccines are safe for pregnant women.

"They feel there's not enough safety because we don't have 10 years of experience with COVID vaccinations and pregnancy but... we have a lot of experience with vaccination during pregnancy in general," she said.

"I feel the vaccine could help give them some security about the COVID situation and also some force to act and do something to protect themselves."

With files from Valeria Cori-Manocchio and CBC's Daybreak


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