Opinion: Lucy Stephenson
‘IT’S real, the numbers are real. Get your vaccine so you or your family don’t have to go through what I have had to. As I write this I am laying beside her, she is 35, unvaccinated and in a coffin. Let that sink in.’
This is a tweet from Josh Willis, whose wife, Samantha, died with Covid recently in Derry, Northern Ireland.
Just before her death she’d given birth to their fourth child – a girl she would never meet properly or even get to hold.
Her death has made the national headlines this past week as it highlights an area of increasing concern for public health officials about the high proportion of pregnant women not taking up the offer of a Covid vaccine.
In July it was reported that the number of pregnant women being admitted to hospital with Covid in England was rising, with many of them unvaccinated. The figures led chief midwife for England, Jacqueline Dunkley-Bent, to say that all healthcare professionals had ‘a responsibility to proactively encourage pregnant women’ to get vaccinated.
There are no figures available for Jersey about the numbers of pregnant women vaccinated or not, and the data group would be small anyway. But the trend is likely to be similar to that being seen in the UK.
What we do know is that pregnant women and others concerned about potential impacts of the vaccine on fertility (which the scientists now say there are none) are raising the same questions as their counterparts over the water and showing similar levels of nervousness.
And as a result our government, like authorities around the UK, are now working harder than ever to meet Ms Dunkley-Bent’s call and encourage pregnant women to get their vaccine.
This is, of course, a good thing, and I’m happy to say that I had both doses of my vaccine while pregnant, in the hope that it would not only protect me but my child when he eventually arrived. Early indications show that their efforts are working elsewhere too, with an increase in uptake being recorded.
And I would encourage others in a similar situation to consider doing the same, to do their research and make an informed decision. It is, however, their individual decision at the end of the day, and one we should respect either way.
As we talk about cases such as Samantha Willis, and as health professionals work to encourage this section of the population to get vaccinated, we need to be mindful not to place any kind of blame on women choosing not to follow the advice.
This means being careful of the wording we use, of how we talk to others about the matter, how we react to those who may be going through this situation themselves and how we share information or debate the pros and cons of vaccination.
These women are not all anti-vaxxers (although some may be) and most are not making the decision lightly. What they are is anxious, wanting to do the very best for their unborn baby – or any potential future babies – and in many cases confused by a narrative which only a few months ago was telling women wanting to get pregnant within the next few months and those already expecting to avoid the vaccine altogether.
The reality is that advice was issued because at the time there was not enough scientific evidence to say the vaccine was safe. There was no evidence to say it wasn’t, but with the situation so new and quickly developing the most cautious approach was taken.
Like so much in the Covid-19 world, things have moved on quickly and the advice has now changed.
According to updated advice from the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists the vaccines are now recommended in pregnancy, and since 16 April the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation advised that all pregnant women should be offered the vaccine at the same time as the rest of the population, in line with the rest of their age group.
The RCOG says: ‘Vaccination is the best way to protect against the known risks of Covid-19 in pregnancy for both women and babies, including admission to intensive care and premature birth.’
And it adds: ‘The decision whether to have the vaccination in pregnancy is your choice. Make sure you understand as much as you can about Covid-19 and about the vaccine and you may want to discuss your options with a trusted source like your doctor or midwife.’
Fertility experts, including our own in Jersey, also say that there are no concerns that the vaccine could impact future fertility.
As a community we can and should support women to make an informed choice that is right for them and their families.
What we should not do is judge them, either way, for the decision that they settle on.
Becoming a parent is an anxious time for most people already without the added pressures of Covid, and there is a lifetime of stress and guilt ahead – it comes with the territory of having little people (and future bigger people) to care for and love unconditionally.
Adding another pressure to the mix by society passing judgment – or the worry that it might – on a person’s decision to be vaccinated during pregnancy or not is unhelpful, unkind and risks causing the exact opposite of protecting health, which is we are trying to achieve.