Embarking on a pregnancy in rural or regional Australia has always had its challenges and now we have COVID-19 to consider. The pandemic and its many implications may be causing some people to feel ambivalent about pregnancy this year. So, what is known about COVID-19 and pregnancy and what should people consider if they want to conceive?
Research to date
Australian health authorities are not advising people against conceiving, but pregnant women are considered a vulnerable group. This is mostly due to a lack of research about how COVID-19 affects pregnant women and their babies, rather than evidence of bad outcomes.
On April 16, a group of American researchers published what is known so far about COVID-19 and human reproduction. They concluded:
· The fever associated with COVID-19 can affect the quality of a man’s sperm for about three months, so it may temporarily reduce fertility.
· Pregnant women are not more likely to get infected by COVID-19 than other women, nor are they at higher risk for severe illness.
· Women who become seriously ill in late pregnancy are more likely than other pregnant women to deliver their babies prematurely.
· After birth, transmission of COVID-19 from mother to child has been reported, but there has been no indication that infants born to COVID-19 positive mothers experience any significant problems.
Age is an important factor for women, especially those in their late 30s and early 40s who are at risk of missing out on a baby if they delay. Women younger than 30 have about a 20 per cent chance of getting pregnant each month and by age 40, it’s about five per cent each month. There is also increasing evidence that a man’s age can affect the chance of a healthy pregnancy and baby. One recent study found that the older a man is when he conceives, the higher the chance of miscarriage.
Pregnancy is known to increase the risk of anxiety and depression, so women may want to consider how robust their mental health is and whether they have enough support for a pregnancy and with a newborn. While Australia had successfully “flattened the curve” in May, governments may still impose social distancing policies and travel restrictions between states and territories in future.
Alcohol sales have soared since the arrival of COVID-19 and some doctors fear a rise in fetal alcohol disorders due to the pandemic, so for women wanting to get pregnant, not drinking is the safest option. Drinking alcohol can also reduce both men’s and women’s fertility and heavy drinking increases the time it takes to get pregnant.
There’s mounting evidence that a man and woman’s health and fitness in the lead up to conception can impact on their child’s health long term. So for people who decide to delay their plans, using the time to improve their health is a good investment.
Being a healthy weight is one of the best ways to increase the chance of a healthy pregnancy and baby. If men or women are overweight or underweight it can take longer to conceive. For people who are overweight, research shows that losing even a few kilograms can improve pregnancy rates. Eating well and regular exercise can help people get closer to a healthy weight and it will also help women reduce their chance of complications such as gestational diabetes during pregnancy.
For more evidence-based information about pre-conception health, visit the government funded website yourfertility.org.au.