September 28, 2021

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The Impact of the Pandemic on Pregnancy: A Research Response

11 min read

Maternal health and health disparities are key priorities for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Our commitment continues through ongoing research at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to address life-threatening pregnancy complications. The statistics surrounding maternal mortality and morbidity are staggering: On average, every 12 hours, a woman dies from complications from pregnancy or giving birth, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and 60% of these deaths are preventable. Black and American Indian/Alaska Native women are about three times as likely to die from a pregnancy-related cause, compared to white women, Hispanic women and Asian/Pacific Islander women.

In May, the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute on Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) together with the NIH Office of Research on Women’s Health hosted researchers across the country for a two-day virtual NIH workshop exploring the conditions that increase the risk of maternal deaths and pregnancy complications.

Now, with the added concerns of the coronavirus pandemic, there is much more we need to know to help ensure healthy pregnancies and healthy babies. Because SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is new, we want to learn about its short- and long-term impact on pregnant women and their infants. NICHD recently launched a study to understand the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic during and after pregnancy.

Researchers with the NICHD-funded Maternal-Fetal Medicine Units (MFMU) Network are analyzing the medical records of up to 21,000 women to evaluate whether health care changes implemented as a result of the pandemic have led to higher rates of pregnancy-related death and complications, as well as cesarean delivery. The study will be conducted at 12 MFMU Network sites across the United States. These sites cover more than 160,000 deliveries a year, and their racial, ethnic, and geographic diversity are nationally representative. 

Accelerating Diagnostics

Earlier this year, NIH launched the Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics (RADx) initiative to speed development, commercialization, and implementation of technologies for COVID-19 testing. Accurate, fast, easy-to-use, and widely accessible testing is critical to an effective response to the COVID-19 crisis. Part of this initiative, called RADx-UP, aims to understand the factors associated with disparities in COVID-19 testing among pregnant and postpartum women, as well as other underserved populations. Funding opportunities are available until August 7, 2020.

Research and Evidence

Through research that now is underway, we hope to provide answers and shed light on the many unknown factors confounding this pandemic. Maternal deaths and pregnancy complications can be prevented, and our research is key to developing and implementing best prevention practices. SARS-CoV-2 represents a new challenge and an opportunity to ensure that we include pregnant women in research, address special concerns related to pregnancy, and create systems that allow us to track long-term outcomes.

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