Brazil’s health ministry has asked women to avoid becoming pregnant “until a better moment” as the country’s health system buckles under the strain of the Covid pandemic.
Officials said the recommendation was partly due to the stress on the health system but also because the more contagious Brazilian variant known as P1 – currently ravaging the country – appears to affect expectant mothers more than earlier versions of coronavirus.
A study last month concluded that the variant was likely twice as transmissible as earlier ones, and may evade immunity built-up naturally by past infection.
The data, collected in Manaus, Brazil, suggests the variant probably arose in mid-November 2020 in the city. It has now spread to the rest of Brazil and at least 37 other countries, including Canada and the United States.
Hospitals in Brazil are said to be buckling under the strain, while stocks of drugs needed for intubating severely ill patients are running dangerously low.
Health ministry official Raphael Parente told a press conference on Friday: “If it’s possible, delay pregnancy a little until a better moment.
“The clinical experience of specialists shows that this new variant acts more aggressively in pregnant women.”
Previously, Mr Parente said, Covid infections in pregnant women were affecting the final trimester and birth, whereas lately there have been more serious cases in both the second and occasionally first trimester.
Younger people seem to be more affected by the P1 variant too – hospital data in Brazil from last month showed that more than half of all patients in intensive care were aged 40 or younger.
Brazil is one of the world’s Covid epicentres, with more Brazilians dying of the virus each day than anywhere else in the world. On Thursday alone, the country registered an additional 3,560 deaths. For comparison, the UK registered just 35 the same day.
The P1 variant is likely a major factor behind the second wave of infections, which has brought the country’s death toll to over 365,000 – the second highest in the world behind the United States.
But Brazil’s struggling healthcare system is also thought to be a factor, with 85 per cent of intensive care beds occupied in Sao Paulo alone and officials relying on international suppliers for hospital provisions.
An emergency shipment of sedatives needed for patients who require mechanical ventilation arrived in Brazil late on Thursday from China, while further donations from Spain are scheduled to arrive some time next week.
Vaccinations were also reportedly paused in several Brazilian cities this week due to supply shortages, according to local media.
Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo – Brazil’s richest and most populous state – have both flagged the shortages to government and the press. Jean Gorinchteyn, Sao Paulo’s health secretary, went as far as saying this week that the city’s inability to care for seriously ill coronavirus patients meant “collapse is imminent”.
Yet, with the economy to consider, Sao Paulo announced on Friday it would forge on with plans to begin reopening stores and restaurants. Officials claimed the number of new hospitalisations had fallen enough that the city could handle the process safely.
Brazil’s far-right leader Jair Bolsonaro – whose Covid response was on Thursday branded the worst in the world by Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) – has opposed lockdowns and held large events throughout the pandemic, where he is regularly pictured without a face mask.
“I have to be very clear in this: the Brazilian authorities’ negligence is costing lives,” MSF’s international president, Christos Christou, told reporters on Thursday.
Meinie Nicolai, the group’s general director, added: “There is no coordination in the response. There is no real acknowledgment of the severity of the disease … The government is failing the Brazilian people.”