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UNFPA's Response

The COVID-19 pandemic is straining public health systems, triggering unprecedented measures by governments around the world, including movement restrictions and shelter-in-place orders. Evidence from prior outbreaks shows that this crisis could exact a massive toll on women and girls. Women are disproportionally represented in the health and social services sectors, increasing their risk of exposure to the disease. Stress, limited mobility, and livelihood disruptions also increase women’s and girls’ vulnerability to gender-based violence and exploitation. And if health systems redirect resources away from sexual and reproductive health services, women’s access to family planning, antenatal care, and other critical services could suffer.

UNFPA is on the ground, distributing personal protective equipment for health workers and supporting health and social systems where needed. UNFPA is also supporting efforts to learn more about the virus and its impact to better serve the most vulnerable.


Are pregnant women at increased risk of severe illness from COVID-19?

There is emerging evidence on the impact of COVID-19 on pregnancy and newborns. Pregnant women’s overall risk of experiencing severe COVID-19 illness is low. However, recent studies report that pregnant women with COVID-19 are at increased risk of being admitted to intensive care and of requiring mechanical ventilation compared with women who aren’t pregnant. 

Pregnant women over the age of 35, those who have a BMI of 30 or more, and women with pre-existing medical problems, including high blood pressure and diabetes, also appear to be at higher risk of developing severe illness requiring hospitalization. 

The majority of women who have become severely ill were in their third trimester of pregnancy. Preterm birth rates are higher in pregnant women with COVID-19 than in pregnant women without the disease. 
Given that pregnant women undergo physical changes that can make them more vulnerable to experiencing serious respiratory infections, they must be treated with utmost priority. 

Evidence over vertical transmission (the spread of COVID-19 from mother to fetus) is not well established, and much remains unclear. However, we can still make concrete suggestions about caring for pregnant women, post-partum women and newborns during the pandemic. Women attending health facilities for care, must be cared for separately from identified COVID-19 cases to prevent virus transmission. All women, regardless of whether or not they have COVID-19 should be encouraged by their maternity care providers to access routine antenatal, delivery, safe abortion and postpartum, or postabortion care to the full extent of the law. 

Should pregnant women be vaccinated against COVID-19?

At present, there is insufficient evidence to recommend routine use of COVID-19 vaccines during pregnancy.
As of January 2021, the World Health Organization recommended not to use the Moderna or Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine during pregnancy unless the benefit of vaccinating outweigh the potential vaccine risks, such as for pregnant health workers at high risk of exposure and pregnant women with comorbidities increasing their risk of experiencing severe COVID-19 symptoms. 

WHO has no preferred vaccine product for pregnant women or the general population. Women are recommended to discuss the benefits and risks of taking the vaccine with their healthcare professional and reach a decision based on individual circumstances.

Should new mothers exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms breastfeed their newborns? Should they be separated from their newborns?

There is currently no evidence that a woman with symptoms consistent with COVID-19 infection, who has recently given birth, needs to be separated from her infant. All mothers and infants, regardless of their COVID-19 status, need support to remain together,  establish breastfeeding, and practice skin-to-skin contact.

According to UNICEF, “considering the benefits of breastfeeding and the insignificant role of breastmilk in the transmission of other respiratory viruses, the mother can continue breastfeeding, while applying all the necessary precautions.”

Symptomatic mothers well enough to breastfeed should wear a mask when near her infant (including during feeding), wash hands before and after contact with the child (including feeding), and disinfect contaminated surfaces.
If a mother is too ill to breastfeed, she should be encouraged to express milk that can be given to the infant  – while wearing a mask, washing hands before and after contact with the child, and disinfecting contaminated surfaces.

Are rates of domestic violence rising as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic? 

Reliable data on gender-based violence are notoriously difficult to obtain, and conditions are rapidly changing as COVID-19 spreads around the world. We, therefore, do not have a clear view into how gender-based violence rates are changing. But we have plenty of reasons to be concerned.

Evidence from prior outbreaks indicates that women and girls face higher risks of intimate partner violence and other forms of domestic violence due to heightened tensions in the household. The financial impacts of epidemics also increase the risk of other forms of gender-based violence, such as sexual exploitation and abuse.

These concerns are particularly acute in the COVID-19 pandemic, which has resulted in movement restrictions on a scale never before seen. There are real dangers for women and girls forced into isolation with abusers, and concerns over whether and how they can receive assistance. Critical services provided by health systems, including clinical management of rape, psychosocial support, and referrals to protection, may be cut off when health providers are overburdened with COVID-19 cases. 
Health workers must be equipped with the skills and resources to provide sensitive, respectful and confidential care to survivors of gender-based violence. 

How UNFPA supports pregnant women who contract COVID 19?

UNFPA is working to ensure that pregnant women with suspected, probable or confirmed COVID-19 infections, including those who may need to spend time in isolation, have access to woman-centred, respectful, skilled care, including routine testing and screening, appropriate referrals, safe delivery and newborn care, as well as mental health and psychosocial support. Health systems must also be ready to address maternal and neonatal complications in these cases. 
UNFPA is also working to ensure all women following birth, who have COVID-19, or who have recovered, are provided with information and counselling on safe infant feeding and appropriate measures to prevent COVID-19 virus transmission.
All women should be enabled and encouraged to access routine antenatal, delivery, and, safe abortion where legal and to the full extent of the law, and postpartum or postabortion care.