As medical experts and researchers scramble to learn as much about COVID-19 as the pandemic continues, pregnant women have a new worry. A study has found that the virus can cause injury to the placenta, the organ that provides a growing fetus with oxygen and nutrients. The placenta is essential for normal development. While the potential risks to a newborn are not yet understood, the issue could lead to lawsuits if doctors fail to monitor their expectant patients for the infection.
COVID-19 Infection and the Placenta
That infections in the mother can lead to cerebral palsy and other disabilities in newborns is already well known. But the COVID-19 disease is a new infection, and exactly how it affects anyone, pregnant women and developing fetuses included is still not completely understood.
One small study has just reported that the virus can have a damaging effect on the placenta, an essential organ in fetal development. The placenta develops during pregnancy and acts to supply the fetus with nutrients and oxygen from the mother. It also removes waste products.
The researchers worked with a small group of 16 women who tested positive for the virus and were pregnant. The women had evidence of placenta injuries, which caused abnormal blood flow between the baby and the mother and blood clots. Fifteen of the babies were delivered at full term and in good health. One pregnancy resulted in a miscarriage.
The Potential for Birth Injuries
Fortunately, most of the babies in the study were born at full term and were healthy with no obvious harm from the placental damage. Because the placenta is so important to supplying oxygen to the fetus, the results are still concerning.
If the baby is not supplied with adequate oxygen, it can suffer from hypoxic brain damage or abnormal brain development. These are the underlying causes of cerebral palsy. While the babies from the current study seem fine now, researchers point to studies of babies born during the 1918 flu pandemic. Those born to mothers with the virus went on to have lower socioeconomic status later in life as well as a greater risk for health problems.
Physicians Must Screen Mothers Carefully
The new information about the COVID-19 infection and placenta damage indicates that doctors must be more careful than ever when screening pregnant women. Regular checkups and health screenings can prevent a number of complications that could lead to brain damage and disabilities like cerebral palsy in the baby.
The researchers suggest that more non-stress tests or ultrasounds during pregnancy may be necessary during the pandemic. These tests can monitor the rate of blood flow to the fetus and the baby’s development to ensure it is growing as expected. Most importantly, the researchers want physicians to be aware of the risks of COVID-19 to pregnant women and their babies and to be prepared to change how they monitor pregnancies.
The potential for harm to babies because of COVID-19 is yet another risk that a child will be born with a disability like cerebral palsy. It is also another way in which a doctor could be considered negligent in not providing adequate care, leading to medical malpractice lawsuits.