The researchers point out that contracting the COVID-19 infection during pregnancy can affect fetal and postnatal development negatively, as many other viral infections have previously shown to do.
In every culture and nation across the world, children represent the future. Guaranteeing their health, safety and education is one of the ways to ensure that they do achieve their future potential. However, there are several key obstacles that hinder this from happening.
COVID-19 and the future of children
In February 2020, the World Health Organisation (WHO), United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and The Lancet released a report called A future for the world’s children?. In this report, researchers from across the globe pointed out that despite dramatic improvements in survival, nutrition and education in recent decades, today’s children face constant threats to their health and future due to climate change, ecological degradation, migrating populations, conflict, inequalities and predatory commercial practices.
In March 2020, COVID-19 was declared a pandemic. It has infected over 54 million people so far, caused the death of over a million of those and still remains uncontrolled. The novel coronavirus has had such a huge impact on this planet that people have not only lost jobs and livelihoods but are also facing economic crises, food and job insecurities and a rise in mental health issues. A study published in The Lancet in August 2020 says that even though children may be less affected clinically by the COVID-19 infection, the pandemic itself has not left them unscathed.
Learning from previous disease outbreaks
A new study published in the Journal of Developmental Origins of Health and Disease suggests that the impact of COVID-19 could be huge not only on children but also on those who aren’t even born yet. The researchers behind this study analyzed current studies that evaluate the impact of the pandemic on children while also taking cues from the trends that followed the 1918 influenza pandemic, the 2002 SARS epidemic and the 2012 MERS epidemic.
The researchers observed that the 1918 influenza pandemic had a long-term impact on those who were exposed to the disease in utero (while in the mother’s womb, also known as the prenatal stage). These children grew up to have a higher prevalence of diabetes, ischemic heart disease, depression and risks of mortality after the age of 50 – bringing their life-expectancy down by a lot. The SARS and MERS epidemics — though more recent and definitely not as widespread as COVID-19 – appear to have had a similar effect on those who were exposed to the infections during the prenatal stages of life.
Prenatal exposure to COVID
The study suggests that though current research indicates that children have a different immune response to COVID-19 than adults, the long-term effects of exposure to COVID-19 are yet to be seen. Studies are already pointing out the complications like Kawasaki syndrome and multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C) may show up in the coming months and years. At the same time, the effects of in utero exposure to COVID-19 when the mother has the infection — especially severe COVID-19 — need to be observed even though there is, as yet, no proof of vertical transmission.
The researchers point out that contracting the COVID-19 infection during pregnancy can affect fetal and postnatal development negatively, as many other viral infections have previously shown to do. Other studies already point out that pregnant women with COVID-19 infection have a higher prevalence of premature labour and birth. This premature birth and low birth weight itself can affect a newborn’s lifetime immunity, disease risk and development. Maternal infections during pregnancy can also lead to an exaggerated inflammatory response, thromboembolic events and other complications involving the nervous and cardiovascular systems.
Environmental exposure to COVID-19
The study also describes that even in pregnant women without COVID-19 disease, the baby can suffer from negative outcomes due to other factors. It’s important to note that the COVID-19 pandemic has not only disrupted access to proper prenatal care for most pregnant women across the world but has also led to increased levels of stress, unemployment, food insecurity, domestic violence and other factors that can affect maternal wellbeing.
Such social, economic and psychological stressors can also cause harm to a baby’s in-utero development. What’s more, these stressors indicate that the newborn will face immense challenges from the moment of birth, which can affect nutrition, access to education, child psychology, behaviour and other developmental factors. The researchers thus conclude that whether their mothers have COVID-19 disease or not, the generation which is either in utero or just born now is likely to have health complications and accelerated ageing in the coming century. They recommend that healthcare professionals should therefore keep an eye on the development and health status of this generation and policies be put in place to account for the long impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
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