United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Jamaica Health Programme Specialist, Novia Condell-Gibson.
Photo: UNICEF Jamaica

Pregnancy is a very special time filled with excitement, joy and anticipation of new life.

But for expectant mothers facing the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), there is much anxiety and fear surrounding the impact of the virus on both mother and baby.

The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), whose mandate includes addressing the long-term needs of children and women, particularly in developing countries, is providing some useful information and advice to help expectant mothers and their families during this time of uncertainty.

UNICEF Jamaica Health Programme Specialist, Novia Condell-Gibson, tells JIS News that the organisation remains committed to providing pregnant women with the necessary resources to ensure a safe pregnancy.

“As COVID-19 unfolds, we are learning how it affects pregnant women. Studies are still being done on how pregnant women are affected,” she notes.

She says it is still not known whether the virus can be transmitted from a mother to her baby during pregnancy. To date, the virus has not been found in vaginal fluid, cord blood or breast milk, nor has it been detected in amniotic fluid or the placenta.

Mrs. Condell-Gibson notes further that research does not indicate that pregnant women are at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19 than any other group of people.

However, due to changes in their bodies and immune systems, women in the last months of pregnancy can be badly affected by some respiratory infections. It is, therefore, important that they take additional precautions.

As such, Mrs. Condell-Gibson advises that they practise physical distancing, such as avoiding contact with anyone displaying symptoms of COVID-19, and public transportation as much as possible; working from home where possible; staying away from large and small gatherings in public spaces, particularly in closed or confined areas; avoiding physical gatherings with friends and family; and using the telephone, texting or online services to contact midwife, obstetrician and other essential services if needed.

She says expectant women must ensure that they have regular prenatal visits, as this is important in tracking the health status of both mother and baby.

“It is very important that pregnant women are in touch with their doctors. It is very important that they make sure they are adhering to their prenatal visits,” she emphasises.

The UNICEF officer further advises that expectant mothers, particularly those with high-risk pregnancies, discuss with their healthcare providers the various options in ensuing a safe delivery.

Mrs. Condell-Gibson says that having a birth plan in place can help ease feelings of anxiety.

Expectant mothers should discuss with the midwife or healthcare provider who is providing support throughout pregnancy and birth where the delivery is to take place and the precautions that must be taken to determine the best birth plan. Importantly, they are encouraged to find out the COVID-19 protocols of hospitals.

As it relates to breastfeeding, Mrs. Condell-Gibson says that transmission of active COVID-19 through breast milk and breastfeeding has not been detected to date and recommends that mothers breastfeed their newborns.

“The World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF recommend that mothers breastfeed. We do not have a lot of data that suggest mother-to-child transmission,” she notes.

Breast milk provides the ideal nutrition for infants. It has essential vitamins, protein, and fat for the optimal health of the baby and contains antibodies that help the baby’s immune system to develop and fight off viruses and bacteria.

However, if a mother suspects she may have COVID-19, it is important to seek medical care early and follow the instructions of the healthcare provider.

UNICEF further recommends that mothers who are well enough to breastfeed should take every precaution to prevent transmission of the virus to the baby by wearing a mask and washing hands before and after contact.

If the mother is too ill to breastfeed, the mother should express the breastmilk and feed the baby using a cup or spoon.

Following birth, it is important that mothers continue to receive professional support and guidance, and routine immunisations are done for the health of the baby.

Mrs. Condell-Gibson notes that maintaining a sterile environment post-birth is particularly important to minimise the possible introduction of the virus into the home.

She says mothers should regularly clean and sanitise hands and frequently touched surfaces in the home.

They are advised to only accept visits from immediate family members who are not infected with COVID-19. All visitors should thoroughly wash their hands and wear a mask during visits.

If there are other children in the home, ensure that they are not in contact with other children. These measures will help to protect the mother and the newborn from contracting the virus.

“It is even more important that they sanitise the environment and that the mother and baby are able to stay in a place where they don’t have a lot of visitors, to reduce risk of contracting the virus,” she points out.

Mrs. Condell-Gibson says in the event of illness, expectant mothers or women who have recently given birth must immediately seek medical assistance and follow the instructions of healthcare providers. She also advises that mothers continue to strictly observe the established safety protocols.

“Expectant mothers should ensure that they are practising all the recommended precautions – wearing of the mask, staying at home as much as possible, social distancing and sanitising as much as possible, pre-birth and post-birth, for the health of the mother and baby,” she says.

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