Studies worldwide identify a troubling new trend during the pandemic: stillbirth statistics in hospitals have skyrocketed in 2020.
According to Nature, stillbirth statistics have significantly risen in some countries, including the United Kingdom, Nepal, and India. In the most extensive study on 2020 stillbirths, researchers found a 50% increase in stillbirths in nine hospitals across Nepal. Stillbirths increased from 14 per 1,000 births before March to 21 per 1,000 births by May.
In July, Reuters reported a similar trend in a London-based hospital. In the four months before the pandemic, there were roughly two stillbirths for every 1,000 births at St. George’s University Hospital. It rose to approximately nine stillbirths per 1,000 births from February to June.
Scotland and India also saw an increase in the stillbirth rate during the pandemic, according to Nature.
Researchers don’t attribute the stillbirths to COVID-19 infections. Instead, health officials say the rate has probably risen because access to prenatal health services has declined during the pandemic. Hospitals too overwhelmed with COVID-19 to continue non-essential medical visits may have led to the decline. Women also may be avoiding the risk of exposure to COVID-19 from visiting a hospital.
“What we’ve done is cause an unintended spike in stillbirth while trying to protect [pregnant women] from COVID-19,” Jane Warland, a specialist in midwifery at the University of South Australia in Adelaide, told Nature.
Some appointments that typically happen in person were held via telemedicine to protect women from COVID-19. It’s impossible to check for many early signs of trouble in a pregnancy during a video call. For example, doctors can’t check blood pressure and identify signs of hypertension. They also can’t listen to the baby’s heartbeat or do an ultrasound remotely.
“We are aware anecdotally of pregnant women presenting late with reduced fetal movements, which can be a sign their baby is unwell, and of women missing antenatal appointments,” Pat O’Brien, the vice-president of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists in London, told Nature. “This may be due to confusion around whether these appointments count as essential travel, fear of attending a hospital, or not wanting to burden the NHS.”
Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention acknowledge that pregnant women are at a higher risk for contracting COVID-19, the CDC still recommends you don’t skip your healthcare appointments during and after pregnancy.