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As COVID-19 continues to spread, pregnant and breastfeeding women advised to take precautions

5 March 2020
Author: UNFPA
Sanitary supplies, medical equipment and other essentials are being distributed in the hardest-hit parts of China. © UNFPA China
Sanitary supplies, medical equipment and other essentials are being distributed in the hardest-hit parts of China. © UNFPA China

UNITED NATIONS, New York – Pregnant women should take routine preventative actions to avoid infection with the new coronavirus disease (COVID-19), UNFPA announced in a statement today. These preventative measures, recommended in alignment with the World Health Organization (WHO), include diligent hand-washing, avoiding close contact with people exhibiting symptoms of infection, and covering sneezes and coughs.*

Public health officials are rushing to contain the rapid spread of the virus. More than 95,000 cases have been confirmed across 79 countries, according to the most recent information from WHO, which has declared the outbreak a public health emergency of international concern.

The illness, caused by a recently discovered coronavirus, has caused widespread fears and, in some places, strains on health systems.

Families, including pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers, are facing fear and uncertainty amid the outbreak. © Unsplash/Macau Photo Agency

Little is currently known about the vulnerability of pregnant women to COVID-19, contributing to a climate of anxiety for women. In general, pregnancy-related physical changes may increase some pregnant women's susceptibility to viral respiratory infections. UNFPA urges health officials to treat pregnant women with respiratory illnesses as an “utmost priority.”

“While fear and uncertainty are natural responses to the coronavirus, we must be guided by facts and solid information,” said Dr. Natalia Kanem, UNFPA’s Executive Director. “We must stand together in solidarity, fight stigma and discrimination, and ensure that people get the information and services they need, especially pregnant and lactating women.”

Hygiene and precautions

“Sexual and reproductive health is a significant public health issue during epidemics, and safe pregnancy and childbirth depends on functioning health systems and strict adherence to infection precautions,” the statement notes.

There is currently no vaccine available to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Pregnant women who become infected should be treated with WHO-recommended supportive therapies in consultation with their OB/GYN, UNFPA recommends.

Breastfeeding women who become ill should not be separated from their newborns, the statement adds. There is no evidence that the illness can be transmitted through breastmilk. However, breastfeeding mothers who are infected should wear a mask when near their baby, wash their hands before and after feeding, and disinfect contaminated surfaces. If a mother is too ill to breastfeed, she should be encouraged to express milk for the baby, while taking all necessary precautions.

Mental health and psychosocial support should be made available to affected individuals and their families.

The health, welfare, protection and dignity of women and girls is a central focus in UNFPA's response. © UNFPA China

UNFPA supporting the response

UNFPA is working with partners, governments and UN agencies around the world to address the COVID-19 outbreak.

In China, UNFPA is supporting public health efforts, including delivering critical medical supplies for frontline health workers as well as sanitary items for women, girls and vulnerable populations such as elderly patients. These supplies are being distributed in Hubei Province, the epicenter of the outbreak.

On 23 February, a first batch of 262,000 sanitary napkins arrived in Wuhan, Huanggang and Xiaogan, three cities of Hubei that are among the most affected. More than 315,000 adult diapers and a variety of medical supplies were also delivered to local hospitals and health facilities.

UNFPA is also in the process of acquiring personal protective equipment for doctors and other health workers.

“The protection needs of women and girls must be at the centre of response efforts. Part of why we are doing this is to ensure there is a focus on sustaining the accessibility of vulnerable women and girls to quality sexual and reproductive health services as part of the response,” said Dr. Babatunde Ahonsi, UNFPA’s representative in China.

*A previous version of this story included the thorough cooking of meat and eggs as one of the suggested actions to avoid the novel coronavirus. This was removed on 6 April 2020 to reflect health officials' increased focus on human-to-human transmission.

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