Can I get the Covid-19 vaccine if I’m breastfeeding?

Here's what the experts have to say

06 August 2021 - 06:00 By sanet oberholzer
Pregnant and breastfeeding women were initially not included in SA’s vaccine rollout but are now eligible to receive the jab.
Pregnant and breastfeeding women were initially not included in SA’s vaccine rollout but are now eligible to receive the jab.
Image: 123RF/alenkasm

World Breastfeeding Week (August 1—7) aims to encourage new mothers to breastfeed, not only in the critical first hours after their babies have been born, but for the first six months of their little ones’ lives and longer if possible.

Given that SA is making inroads into its Covid-19 vaccine rollout, this year’s World Breastfeeding Week raises a serious question: is it safe for breastfeeding women to get the jab?

During the initial stage of the rollout, the vaccine was not made available to pregnant and breastfeeding women — a decision that was later overturned in a circular issued by the Department of Health on June 25.

“Though pregnant women are at no greater risk of being infected by SARS-CoV-2, the woman and her infant are more likely to develop complications from Covid-19,” reads the document.

Based on this, the department recommended that Covid-19 vaccines, including the Pfizer and J&J shots, be offered to pregnant and breastfeeding women who “are eligible to be vaccinated and who have completed 14 weeks of gestation”.

According to Prof Hannelie Meyer, the head of the South African Vaccination and Immunisation Centre (Savic) at Sefako Makgatho Health Sciences University, and Prof Rose Burnett, a scientific adviser at Savic, most clinical trials in which the safety and efficacy of vaccines are tested exclude pregnant and breastfeeding women.

“This is why there was no safety data and Covid-19 vaccines were not specifically recommended for breastfeeding mothers,” say Meyer and Burnett.

“However, there is no evidence that the Covid-19 vaccine could be harmful to the mother or the baby. Such vaccines do not contain the virus causing Covid-19, and there is no plausible biological mechanism that could place the baby at risk as a result of the mother’s vaccination.”

According to the pair, a small study investigated breastmilk samples from women given an mRNA vaccine, like the one produced by Pfizer.

This type of vaccine contains a molecule (mRNA) that teaches your body’s cells how to make the proteins needed to trigger an immune response. The researchers found no traces of mRNA in the samples.

Other small studies found that breastfeeding women mount the same immune response to the Covid-19 vaccine as those who are not breastfeeding.

Yet another positive finding from these studies is that the antibodies the vaccinated mothers develop pass into their breastmilk meaning it’s likely that their babies will also be protected against Covid-19.

The health benefits of Covid-19 vaccination for the breastfeeding mother and her baby far outweigh any possible risks
Professors Hannelie Meyer and Rose Burnett of the South African Vaccination and Immunisation Centre

Meyer and Burnett point out that these positive findings must still be confirmed by larger studies.

However, they add: “We already have very strong evidence of the benefits of vaccinating pregnant and breastfeeding women from [research done on other types of] vaccines.

“The health benefits of Covid-19 vaccination for the breastfeeding mother and her baby far outweigh any possible risks.”

According to the American Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), pregnant women and those who have recently been pregnant can receive the Covid-19 vaccine.

“Though the overall risk of severe illness is low, pregnant and recently pregnant people are at an increased risk for severe illness from Covid-19 when compared with non-pregnant people,” reads the CDC’s website. “Additionally, pregnant people with Covid-19 are at increased risk of preterm birth and might be at increased risk of other adverse pregnancy outcomes compared with pregnant women without Covid-19.”


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