Priyali Sur is a multimedia journalist currently based in New Delhi. She has reported extensively on social justice, gender and refugee rights issues in South Asia, the Middle East and Africa. She is the founder of The Azadi Project.
"My cousin was pregnant with a seven-month baby. Unfortunately, the baby died in her womb due to lack of oxygen and then she couldn't survive. If there was vaccination available for pregnant women, she and her baby would live" - Swati Gupta signed my petition with these words. The petition started by me on change.org requests Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan to open up COVID-19 vaccinations for pregnant women in India. Not just Gupta but almost 50,000 people have come forward to support the petition for personal reasons. While some of them are pregnant themselves, others have a daughter, sister or a wife who is pregnant.
As a woman who is eight months pregnant myself and hasn't been vaccinated, I live in constant fear of contracting the virus since I have no immunity. I worry about the consequences on my health and my unborn child's health if I were to contract COVID.
International studies have linked coronavirus during pregnancy to a higher rate of maternal mortality and increased risk of preterm and stillbirth. Even Federation of Obstetric and Gynaecological Societies of India (FOGSI ) has recommended that vaccinations be opened up for us suggesting that the risk of severe complications from contracting coronavirus in pregnant women is far higher than the risk of complications from the vaccine. Despite this, pregnant women like me in India cannot get vaccinated to protect ourselves and our unborn child. We are the only subset of the population above 18 years of age who have not been permitted by the Government of India to be vaccinated.
My petition highlights how the option of choosing to get the vaccination or deciding against it should remain with the pregnant woman. Why should men who are in authority at the health ministry or at Indian Council of Medical Research decide for me or for us pregnant women and our bodies? This undermines not just our intelligence but also our basic right to choose.
The Modi administration says it is unclear whether the available vaccines, Covishield (Astra Zeneca) and Covaxin are safe during pregnancy. However, in the UK, the Joint Committee on Vaccinations and Immunizations (JCVI) has recommended the Astra Zeneca vaccine along with Pfizer and Moderna for pregnant women. "There is no known risk associated with giving non-live vaccines during pregnancy. These vaccines cannot replicate, so they cannot cause infection in either the woman or the unborn child," states their statement. On the other hand, vaccines like Pfizer and Moderna, which have data showing they are safe for pregnant women, are still not available in India.
As a journalist, I wanted to investigate how COVID was impacting pregnant women like me. I spent the last month talking to pregnant women who had contracted the virus in the second wave and to families who had lost a loved one, who was pregnant and COVID positive and didn't get medical attention on time. Most said it was impossible to access life-saving healthcare.
These interviews are published in my recent story where I find that COVID hospitals in India are turning away pregnant women telling them to go to maternity hospitals, and maternity hospitals, in turn, refuse to admit them, saying they cannot take COVID patients. With no immunity and nowhere to go, many pregnant women are losing the battle against COVID. Many have succumbed to the virus, along with their unborn child.
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