Health & Fitness

Covid jab holds benefits for breastfeeding mums, babies

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Healthcare staff prepares to administer a Covid-19 vaccine. FILE PHOTO | AFP

Summary

  • Breastfeeding offers children a good start to life. It is recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as the best source of nutritious food for babies during their first six months of life.
  • Among its many benefits is the immune-boosting capability of breast milk, which allows the mother to confer the immunity she has for various conditions to her child during the subsequent months after delivery.
  • When people fall sick or get vaccinated, the body usually produces antibodies aimed at attacking the viruses or bacteria that are responsible for the ailments.

Breastfeeding offers children a good start to life. It is recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as the best source of nutritious food for babies during their first six months of life.

Among its many benefits is the immune-boosting capability of breast milk, which allows the mother to confer the immunity she has for various conditions to her child during the subsequent months after delivery.

When people fall sick or get vaccinated, the body usually produces antibodies aimed at attacking the viruses or bacteria that are responsible for the ailments.

After recovery, the antibodies remain in the body. And they retain the memory of the disease-causing bugs and how to destroy them.

Should these viruses or bacteria attack in the future, the body will be more prepared to fight them before they cause bodily harm, hence preventing the infected person from becoming sick.

For instance, once someone has suffered from chickenpox, they often become immune to it.

They are thus highly unlikely to suffer from the disease again, thanks to the antibodies produced when they were sick.

With vaccines, the disease-causing bugs are introduced into the body in a weakened state that helps people to develop immunity to the disease-causing viruses or bacteria without having to get the illness.

These antibodies are usually passed from the mother to her unborn child through breast milk, hence making the baby immune to a myriad of ailment that the mother is immune to.

This type of immunity is called passive immunity because the baby has been given antibodies rather than making them itself.

The immunity is also temporary and starts to decrease after the first few months.

Therefore, the longer the child breastfeeds, the longer it will enjoy protection from passive immunity.

In the current race for Covid-19 vaccines, it has been unclear whether it is okay for lactating mothers to take them, due to safety concerns for the breastfeeding baby.

These fears can be put to rest now. A new study published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology indicates that nursing mothers who receive a Covid-19 vaccine may pass protective antibodies to their babies through breast milk for at least 80 days following vaccination.

The new research from the US-based Washington University School of Medicine provides some of the first evidence that breastfeeding confers a long-lasting immune response in the nursing infants and toddlers of vaccinated mothers.

“Our study showed a huge boost in antibodies against the Covid-19 virus in breast milk starting two weeks after the first shot, and this response was sustained for the course of our study, which was almost three months long,” said Dr Jeannie Kelly, the lead author of the study and assistant professor of obstetrics and gynaecology at the Washington University.

She stated: “The antibodies levels were still high at the end of our study, so the protection likely extends even longer.”

The research was based on a small study, involving mothers who provided frozen breast milk samples after receiving two doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine.

“There is so much vaccine misinformation out there right now. There are really scary, misleading posts on social media that are designed to scare mums. So, we felt like we needed to look at the science,” said Dr Kelly.

“We know that these types of antibodies coat babies mouths and throats and protect against disease when a baby is drinking breast milk. So, getting vaccinated while breastfeeding not only protects mum, but also could protect the baby, too, and for months.”

During the study, the researchers tracked levels of Covid-19 antibodies in breast milk before the mothers’ first vaccinations and every week for 80 days after those initial vaccinations.

The babies of the women included in the study ranged in age from one month to 24 months old.

The findings of the study confirmed that breast milk contains elevated levels of antibodies immediately following the first dose of vaccination, which reach immune-significant levels within 14 to 20 days of the first vaccination.

While other recent research has shown that Covid-19 vaccines generate antibodies that are passed to nursing infants through breast milk, this is thought to be the first study to track specific levels of these antibodies in breast milk over an extended period.

“Our study is limited by a small number of participants, but the findings provide encouraging news about the potential immune benefit to breastfeeding infants after vaccination,” said Dr Misty Good, a senior author of the study and an assistant professor of paediatrics at Washington University.

“Our paper is the first that has shown Covid-19 antibodies persist in breast milk for months following the mother’s vaccination,” she stated.

The findings are similar to prior studies on maternal vaccination, which have shown high levels of antibodies in breast milk for up to six months following vaccination for influenza and whooping cough.

infection rates

The researchers noted that while further studies of maternal Covid-19 vaccination are needed to characterise the length of antibody production in breast milk and the effect on infant infection rates, recent research continues to confirm that the Covid-19 vaccine offers real benefits for protecting both mother and child.

“We do know that Covid-19 infection is more severe during pregnancy and that the main benefit of vaccination is to provide protection for mums before they become really sick, which can also be dangerous to their foetus. But there have now been almost 70,000 pregnant people vaccinated against Covid-19 with no evidence of harm,” said Dr Kelly.

“We’re now seeing a cascade of new data that indicate maternal vaccines are also going to help protect babies, both through transfer of antibodies through the placenta and during pregnancy, as well as through the breast milk during lactation.

“This is information we didn’t have a few months ago and it’s really helping us better counsel our patients who are considering getting the vaccine. I’m telling my pregnant and breastfeeding mums that I strongly recommend that they get vaccinated as soon as possible.”