The Shocking Way Coronavirus Could Affect the Next Generation

Potential complications for pregnant women with coronavirus could have long-term effects.

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, doctors and scientists have struggled to get a handle on the novel coronavirus, constantly learning new things about the way it attacks our bodies and the long-term effects of the virus. Up to this point, limited research has been done on coronavirus in pregnant women, but a May study published in the American Journal of Clinical Pathology sheds some light on the subject. And with a potential link between coronavirus and pregnancy complications, experts are now concerned about what these findings could mean for the generation born during the pandemic.

The Northwestern Medicine study included 16 women who tested positive for COVID-19 while pregnant. Of the 16, 15 delivered full-term babies, none of whom appeared to be suffering any immediate ill effects from the virus. But the study found that the placentas of the women, examined after they gave birth, showed injuries that suggested abnormal blood flow between the mothers and the babies in utero.

In a statement, study senior author Jeffrey Goldstein, MD, assistant professor of pathology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, acknowledged that the babies seemed to be healthy, but that the injuries to the mothers' placenta could lead to complications in other pregnancies. "It doesn't appear to be inducing negative outcomes in live-born infants, based on our limited data, but it does validate the idea that women with COVID should be monitored more closely," he said.

The placenta is the first organ that forms during fetal development, and it plays an essential role during pregnancy, taking in oxygen and nutrients for the fetus and getting rid of waste. The placentas from the women in the Northwestern Medicine study showed insufficient blood flow from the mother to the fetus (maternal vascular malperfusion, or MVM), and blood clots in the placenta (intervillous thrombi). Because more placenta forms than is necessary, some damage can occur without serious complications. However, the results of this study could serve as a warning sign to pregnant women—and anyone wanting to get pregnant amid the coronavirus pandemic.

pregnant white woman wearing a face mask and standing by a crib

"Not to paint a scary picture, but these findings worry me," study co-author Emily Miller, MD, assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Feinberg, said in the statement. "This preliminary glimpse into how COVID-19 might cause changes in the placenta carries some pretty significant implications for the health of a pregnancy."

One of the primary concerns is what these placental abnormalities could mean for the long-term health of children born to mothers with coronavirus—especially given past studies on children born during the 1918-1919 flu pandemic.

A 2010 study published in the Journal of Developmental Origins of Health and Disease found that prenatal exposure to the 1918 influenza pandemic was associated with a 20 percent higher rate of cardiovascular disease. And a more recent study, published in 2019 in the journal Demography, also found higher rates of cancer and overall morbidity in those who were exposed to the Spanish flu in utero. Because the flu virus doesn't cross the placenta, Goldstein noted, it is most likely injury to the placenta (and immune activity) that accounts for these life-long problems in people who were born amid a pandemic.

There is still so much we don't know when it comes to how the coronavirus will affect the next generation, and this is only one study, with 16 participants. Nevertheless, the study's authors agree that increased monitoring of pregnant women could be a useful tool in mitigating potential long-term effects—especially when we're learning more about this virus every day. And for more challenges we might face down the line, discover 5 Grim Realities of Life After Coronavirus You Need to Come to Terms With.

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