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PREGNANCY

Testing times: Pregnancy in the time of coronavirus

Pregnant with twins, Ainhoa Martinez knows she probably should be home being careful rather than putting herself at risk by serving the public every day at her boutique teashop near Madrid.

Testing times: Pregnancy in the time of coronavirus
A pregnant woman wearing a face mask as a precautionary measure walks past a street mural in Hong Kong, Photo: AFP

With all but food shops shuttered for the past three weeks as Spain seeks to curb the spread of the virus that has claimed over 13,000 lives, this 36-year-old says she has no choice or they'll have no money.

But what really freaks her out is the thought of going for her 20-week scan at a hospital overwhelmed with coronavirus cases.

“They said the 20-week scan is very, very important and it's my first pregnancy, but I don't want to put myself at risk,” she told AFP.   

“What if I go with my husband and the police stop us? Not only are you taking up the time of a policeman who should be dealing with the outbreak, but you don't know whether he himself is infected,” she said.

In Spain, police are quick to fine anyone violating the terms of the lockdown under which people can only leave home for food, medicine or a medical emergency.

READ MORE: 

For expectant mothers across the world, the deadly pandemic has caused a huge spike in stress and anxiety, compounded by a multi-national lockdown that has played havoc with birth plans and raised countless questions few can answer.

“It shouldn't be be scary to go and have a scan done, it should be exciting,” says Sophie Hales, a first-time mum who just had her 20-week scan at a hospital in Luton near London.

Even though British hospitals are not yet under the same pressure as those in Spain, the atmosphere at the ultrasound clinic was tense, the experience “daunting”.

“Going on your own, especially to a place where you don't know if you're in a room with people that could be carriers of this virus and knowing full well you've got a little baby growing inside you — it's very, very unnerving,” said Hales, 25.

“For me, it would be very terrifying if I was to be confirmed positive because you want to be as strong, as healthy as you can when you're carrying a child.”

Nightmare turned reality

For Vanesa Muro it was a nightmare that came true just days before she was to give birth at a hospital in Madrid, Spain's worst-hit region where more than 5,000 have now died and hospitals are on the brink of collapse.

“It was really frightening thinking about whether I could have it passed on to my baby,” she said, describing how her husband rushed her to A&E but was not allowed to stay.

“They wanted the baby out as quickly as possible to see if he'd been infected so they decided to do it then and there,” she said.   

Operated on by medics cocooned in protective suits, she gave birth alone to a healthy boy, with tests showing he was virus-free.   

The World Health Organisation says there's no scientific evidence showing pregnant women face a higher risk of infection than others.   

But is also says it is unknown whether a mother can pass COVID-19 to her baby, although so far they've found no trace of the virus in amniotic fluid or breast milk.

For these women, fear is a big factor, says midwife Maria Jesus Garcia Diaz, who works at a clinic in the Spanish capital.

“What worries them is how the virus will affect them, but most of all whether it will affect their baby,” she said.   

“One of the most stressful things is uncertainty.. and uncertainty is difficult to alleviate.”

In labour alone?   

For some, uncertainty about the new social distancing rules is particularly acute, with Lumière Nabab, a 29-year-old estate agent from Paris, worrying about going through labour alone.

“It's stressful, we don't understand much, it's all very vague,” she said.    “One minute they say the father can be with you, the next they say he must be in the next room during the delivery.. In some hospitals, the fathers aren't allowed in at all,” she said.   

“The first time you go into labour, it's the unknown — you need reassurance and not to be left all on your own.”

For Maria Rosa Marti, a 29-year-old radiologist from Barcelona who is expecting her second child this week, there are other concerns.   

With colleagues on the frontline, she is very aware of the huge pressure on intensive care units, which have been stretched to breaking point.   

“What worries most is if there is any complication when I'm in labour and they can't take me into intensive care,” she told AFP.   

“For me, a delivery with complications is the worst thing that could happen.”

Managing emotions

With pre-natal classes cancelled, birth-plans ripped up and most checkups now handled by phone, it is the midwives who must help these women through this time of unprecedented upheaval.

“We're seeing a lot of decisions taken as a result of fear and that's not good,” says midwife Garcia Diaz, explaining it was crucial to maintain perspective.

“It is true that people are dying and sick.. but we can't deal with everything,” she said.

“Have a look at your situation and focus on what's around you.     

“What's important is to look after yourself and not to worry. And only watch a little bit of news.”

By Hazel Ward

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COVID-19

Spain rules out EU’s advice on compulsory Covid-19 vaccination 

Spain’s Health Ministry said Thursday there will be no mandatory vaccination in the country following the European Commission’s advice to Member States to “think about it” and Germany’s announcement that it will make vaccines compulsory in February.

Spain rules out EU's advice on compulsory Covid-19 vaccination 
A Spanish man being vaccinated poses with a custom-made T-shirt showing Spain's chief epidimiologist Fernando Simón striking a 'Dirty Harry/Clint Eastwood' pose over the words "What part of keep a two-metre distance don't you understand?' Photo: José Jordan

Spain’s Health Minister Carolina Darias on Thursday told journalists Covid-19 vaccines will continue to be voluntary in Spain given the “very high awareness of the population” with regard to the benefits of vaccination.

This follows the words of European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen on Thursday, urging Member States to “think about mandatory vaccination” as more cases of the Omicron variant are detected across Europe. 

READ ALSO: Is Spain proving facts rather than force can convince the unvaccinated?

“I can understand that countries with low vaccine coverage are contemplating this and that Von der Leyen is considering opening up a debate, but in our country the situation is absolutely different,” Darias said at the press conference following her meeting with Spain’s Interterritorial Health Council.

According to the national health minister,  this was also “the general belief” of regional health leaders of each of Spain’s 17 autonomous communities she had just been in discussion with over Christmas Covid measures. 

READ MORE: Spain rules out new restrictions against Omicron variant

Almost 80 percent of Spain’s total population is fully vaccinated against Covid-19, a figure which is around 10 percent higher if looking at those who are eligible for the vaccine (over 12s). 

It has the highest vaccination rate among Europe’s most populous countries.

Germany announced tough new restrictions on Thursday in a bid to contain its fourth wave of Covid-19 aimed largely at the country’s unvaccinated people, with outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel speaking in favour of compulsory vaccinations, which the German parliament is due to vote on soon.

Austria has also already said it will make Covid-19 vaccines compulsory next February, Belgium is also considering it and Greece on Tuesday said it will make vaccination obligatory for those over 60.

But for Spain, strict Covid-19 vaccination rules have never been on the table, having said from the start that getting the Covid-19 jabs was voluntary. 

There’s also a huge legal implication to imposing such a rule which Spanish courts are unlikely to look on favourably. 

Stricter Covid restrictions and the country’s two states of alarm, the first resulting in a full national lockdown from March to May 2020, have both been deemed unconstitutional by Spain’s Constitutional Court. 

READ ALSO: Could Spain lock down its unvaccinated or make Covid vaccines compulsory?

The Covid-19 health pass to access indoor public spaces was also until recently consistently rejected by regional high courts for breaching fundamental rights, although judges have changed their stance favouring this Covid certificate over old Covid-19 restrictions that affect the whole population.

MAP: Which regions in Spain now require a Covid health pass for daily affairs?

“In Spain what we have to do is to continue vaccinating as we have done until now” Darias added. 

“Spaniards understand that vaccines are not only a right, they are an obligation because we protect others with them”.

What Spanish health authorities are still considering is whether to vaccinate their 5 to 11 year olds after the go-ahead from the European Medicines Agency, with regions such as Madrid claiming they will start vaccinating their young children in December despite there being no official confirmation from Spain’s Vaccine Committee yet.

READ MORE: Will Spain soon vaccinate its children under 12?

Spain’s infection rate continues to rise day by day, jumping 17 points up to 234 cases per 100,000 people on Thursday. There are now also five confirmed cases of the Omicron variant in the country, one through community transmission.

Hospital bed occupancy with Covid patients has also risen slightly nationwide to 3.3 percent, as has ICU Covid occupancy which now stands at 8.4 percent, but the Spanish government insists these figures are “almost three times lower” than during previous waves of the coronavirus pandemic.

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