New Delhi: On the occasion of National Safe Motherhood Day on Sunday, experts said maternal health and family planning services should not be compromised and given due priority even in emergency situations like the COVID-19 pandemic.
National Safe Motherhood Day is observed every year on April 11 on the birth anniversary of Kasturba Gandhi, wife of Mahatma Gandhi.
The experts also called for strengthening the country’s health system.
“We have witnessed a steep rise in maternal deaths during the COVID-19 pandemic. The nationwide lockdown disrupted maternal health services, which resulted in a decline in institutional deliveries as well as women’s access to prenatal and antenatal services,” said Poonam Muttreja, Executive Director of Population Foundation of India and a public health expert.
She said the fear of getting infected as well as limited access to health services has led to depression and anxiety among young mothers which are expected to impact health outcomes for both women and infants in the long run.
“Going forward, health system strengthening is vital to ensure maternal health and family planning services are given due priority and aren’t compromised even in emergency situations like the COVID-19 pandemic,” Muttreja said.
Dr Sujeet Ranjan, Executive Director, The Coalition for Food and Nutrition Security, said it is not yet known if pregnant women are more susceptible to be infected by COVID-19 when compared to the rest of the population.
“Despite this, pregnant women are advised to reduce social contact with social distancing. It is an established fact that in some women, pregnancy alters how the body fights some viral infections,” he said.
“Though evidence for coronavirus is still insufficient, it is for this reason that pregnant women are advised to be extra cautious during this pandemic,” he added.
Ranjan warned that decades of progress in reducing child deaths will be jeopardised unless action is taken to protect and improve quality care services for mothers and newborns, and coverage of lifesaving interventions is expanded.
“WHO advises that mothers should continue to share a room with their babies from birth and be able to breastfeed and practice skin-to-skin contact – even when COVID-19 infections are suspected or confirmed – and should be supported to ensure appropriate infection prevention practices,” he said.
“The risk of a newborn getting COVID-19 from their mother could be reduced, especially when the mother takes steps (such as wearing a mask and washing hands) to prevent spread before and during care and breastfeeding of the newborn,” he added.
According to Ranjan, breastfeeding is particularly effective against infectious diseases because it strengthens the immune system by directly transferring antibodies from the mother.
“There is an urgent need to protect life-saving interventions, such as Kangaroo Mother Care, threatened by the pandemic, and to be ready to recover and build back better,” he said.
“As a global health community, we need to act to protect the most vulnerable and prevent reversals of hard-earned gains in newborn survival, as well mitigate the wider impact on women and families,” he added.
Kangaroo mother care involves close contact between a mother and a newborn baby.
Ranjan said especially for babies born preterm or at low birthweight, kangaroo mother care (early, prolonged skin-to-skin contact with a parent and exclusive breastfeeding) is particularly critical.
Dr Loveleena Nadir, senior consultant gynaecologist and obstetrician at Fortis La Femme, Rosewalk Hospital and Apollo Cradle Royale said the risk of COVID-19 infection in mothers and newborns is the same as in the general population but since pregnancy is an immunocompromised state, one is more prone to any kind of infection.
Noting that better nutrition helps prevent COVID-19, she said a fibre rich plant-based diet with plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes support the growth and maintenance of beneficial gut microbiota which helps in building immunity.
She further suggested that superfoods like eggs, lean meat, lentils, broccoli, spinach, bananas, sweet potatoes, pumpkin and sunflower seeds, figs, avocados, yoghurt, mixed nuts, garlic, ginger and citrus fruits can be accommodated into the diet to increase immunity.