The death of a pregnant woman and her fetus from COVID-19 over the weekend highlighted the increasing number of expectant mothers who have been infected by the virus and saw renewed calls Sunday for them to go and get vaccinated.
According to data published by Israeli television networks, recent months have seen a significant increase in pregnant women infected by the virus, something officials have blamed on the more aggressive UK variant.
In total, some 7,415 pregnant women have been infected since the start of the pandemic. But numbers have spiked in recent months from 288 in November, to 1,238 in December and then doubling to 2,629 in January, according to Health Ministry figures cited by Channel 12.
Channel 13 reported that there are currently 50 pregnant women hospitalized, with 19 in serious condition and 8 in critical condition. None of them have been vaccinated.
The reports noted that only one-third of pregnant women in Israel were vaccinated. However, the Health ministry has only been recommending that they get the vaccine since January 20.
Clinical trials for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine that Israel is using for its mass vaccination campaign did not include pregnant or lactating women and the companies have said there was insufficient data to show if there is any risk involved.
However, due to the incidences of pregnant women becoming seriously ill, the Health Ministry changed its advice.
“There is no evidence of harm resulting from vaccination during the entire pregnancy,” the Health Ministry said in a statement that also included a warning.
“In pregnant women who become infected and fall ill with the coronavirus, there is a higher incidence of a severe onset of the disease, than in a similar age population,” the ministry said.
Channel 13 said that a month after the change in protocol there have been no incidents of side effects harming a pregnant mother or fetus.
The situation was starkly illustrated when a pregnant woman died overnight Saturday of COVID-19, who did not get herself vaccinated against the disease because she feared it might endanger her fetus, which also died.
Speaking to media on Sunday, Osnat Ben Shitrit’s mother and sisters urged people to get the vaccine shots, while her brother-in-law, who admitted to being behind an anti-vaccination social media group, quit the group but said he remained wary of immunization.
Ronit Sianni said that her daughter had wanted to be vaccinated, but was concerned about its safety for pregnant women.
“Go and get vaccinated, don’t wait,” Sianni said to Channel 13. “It is not a game. It is a matter of life and death.”
Ben Shitrit, 32, a mother of four, died at Hadassah Hospital Ein Kerem in Jerusalem. Doctors were unable to save her 30-week fetus in an emergency C-section. The fetus had been not infected with the virus, but was delivered in critical condition and did not survive, Hadassah said.
Ben Shitrit’s brother-in-law told the Kan public broadcaster that he had set up an anti-vaccination Facebook group that swelled to thousands of members, and that he is still a member of several other groups.
The man, who was not identified in the report, said that following Ben Shitrit’s death he suspended his own group, but remains in the others.
“When it arrives in your backyard you understand the need to think differently. Now we understand the cost of the coronavirus,” he said, but remained cautious of advising to get the immunization shots.
The national vaccination campaign is “coercive,” he said, apparently referring to government plans to restrict participation in some aspects of public life for those who have not been vaccinated or have not recovered from the disease.
“I am not saying run out and get vaccinated because you need to do it, but simply, if you want to prevent death in your home, you have the ability, you have the option to be vaccinated,” the man said.
He advised people to first get other tests done to determine if they already have antibodies that could have been produced during asymptomatic infection with the virus.
Ben Shitrit’s two sisters told the station that the expectant mother had been in serious condition for a few days, but refused to be hospitalized.
The sisters said that by the time Ben Shitrit reached the hospital she was already in critical condition. Echoing their mother, they called on the public to be vaccinated.
Ben Shitrit was healthy until she recently contracted the coronavirus, and previously had four smooth pregnancies that ended in straightforward births, a spokeswoman for Hadassah Medical Center told The Times of Israel.
A resident of the Jerusalem area, Ben Shitrit was admitted to the hospital last Tuesday due to respiratory distress, and started deteriorating rapidly on Saturday night. Doctors noticed damage to several of her organs, and a large team, including cardiology and gynecology experts, was assembled by her bedside.
According to a Hadassah statement, medics made “very prolonged” resuscitation attempts and performed an emergency caesarian section. But the mother died, and “despite tremendous efforts to save the fetus’s life in the preterm intensive care unit,” it did not survive.
Ben Shitrit was laid to rest on Sunday afternoon in Jerusalem.
News of her death reverberated across the Israeli healthcare system, with doctors warning that it illustrates the increased danger that the so-called British variant, which now accounts for almost all Israeli COVID cases, holds for pregnant women and fetuses.
As of Sunday over 4.3 million citizens have had at least the first dose of the two-shot Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine Israel is using in its mass immunization drive, representing nearly half of the population. Over 2.9 million have also had the second, according to Health Ministry figures.