The pandemic baby report - Birth rates down, STIs up - (6/1/2021)

By Dr. Ron Gasbarro  

In Spring 2020, people began locking themselves in their homes for the duration of the COVID outbreak. As dismal as the prospect of socially isolating oneself was, late night TV comedians found a bright spot: the opportunities for marathon canoodling soared. “Let’s wait 9 months and see what happens,” they joked.  

Yet, the awaited baby boom morphed into a baby bust. In December 2020 – nine months after the World Health Organization announced that COVID-19 was a global pandemic – preliminary year-end birth rate data provided to CBS News by 29 state health departments revealed a 7% drop in births. California, for example, reported a 10% decline, while Hawaii saw a 30% reduction, compared to the prior year.  

As for sexually transmitted infections (STIs), the situation remained tentative. In the wee months of the pandemic, reports of STIs decreased due to disruptions in health care and STI testing services, reported the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Reduced access to testing and missed diagnoses may have led some people to unintentionally spread infection. As clinics reopen, infections rates are again on the upswing, with chlamydia, gonorrhea, HPV, and syphilis leading the pack. STIs are spread from person to person through sexual activity, including vaginal, oral, and anal sex. Left untreated, STIs can lead to larger health problems, including infertility, permanent organ damage, and death. 

At about the same time that “non-essential” medical procedures - including family planning, contraceptive services, and abortions – were sharply curtailed by state health departments. Initial clinical findings underscored the distinct possibilities that newly pregnant women were at higher risk for severe COVID symptoms. These dire warnings resulted in an uptick of unintentional pregnancies, unsafe, illegal abortions, and subsequent maternal deaths.    

The stories of the women who must suffer these disruptions in their reproductive health are extensive, multi-faceted, and painfully personal. One of the pharmacist's patients, Jill, explained her situation as follows. “Being pregnant was scary because the pandemic was just beginning to affect everything. The free clinic was closed. I could not get a medical appointment anywhere. I wasn’t making enough money. The restaurants were giving me only 10 hours a week. But no one was going out to eat so no tips and so I couldn’t make enough to support myself. I was scared I would get COVID-19 really bad because I was pregnant. I didn’t have a car, so I had to walk everywhere. I did not dare get on a crowded bus. I just could not make ends meet. I did not want to terminate my pregnancy. But I needed to survive.” Jill managed to obtain an illegal abortion. Although she survived her procedure, the decision would haunt her the rest of her life. 

If we humans have learned anything from this pandemic, thought the pharmacist, it is that we can survive. Because of our work on messenger RNA vaccines over the last decade, we were able to develop anti-COVID-19 vaccines in record speed. Due to the airborne nature of viral transmission, consultations relating to family planning services and STI counselling can now be done remotely by telemedicine unless an office visit is absolutely necessary. Abortion services are time sensitive, and thus, should not be denied or delayed beyond legal limit. We need to change from real to virtual consultation to prevent the rise in unplanned pregnancies, STIs, and high-risk abortions. 

Ron Gasbarro, PharmD, is a recovering pharmacist and writer-in-residence at Rx-Press. 

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