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COVID-19 pandemic did not affect Canada’s preterm and stillbirth rates, study finds

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New research has revealed that the COVID-19 pandemic did not not have an effect on the rates of preterm or stillbirths happening in Canada.

A study published Tuesday in the Canadian Medical Association Journal analyzed over 2.4 million births in Ontario and found that there was changes in the rates of such adverse birthing events during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The study, lead by Sinai Health chief pediatrician and University of Toronto professor Dr. Prakesh Shah, cited several reports of shifting preterm births and stillbirths during the pandemic — including here in Canada.

According to the study, those reports were not of the same scale.

Read more: Severe COVID-19 infections linked to higher stillbirth, preterm birth risks: study

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Shah said that the the findings were “reassuring” given the initial reports of increased or decreased pregnancy complications.

“Basically what we did was we looked at the data from one period, for the last 18 and a half years of the births of the babies that occurred in Ontario, and then looked at the preterm births and the stillbirths,” Shah told Global News in an interview Saturday.

Shah and the other researchers had combed through the more than 18 years worth of data to figure out what Ontario’s “natural fluctuations” — fluctuations in the rates of preterm and stillbirths that occurred every six months — were normally like in the last 18 years before the pandemic.

His team had also took into account how pandemic-related measures and restrictions could be a factor affecting preterm birth rates in different settings, and instead focused on looking at the birth outcomes in public health units with higher positivity rates of COVID-19, like Toronto, Peel Region, York Region and Ottawa.

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Taking those factors into account, as well as the difference between urban and rural births as well as neighbourhoods of varying socioeconomic levels, the researchers had found that those fluctuations in premature and stillbirths were more or less the same as before the pandemic.

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“The overall rate of preterm birth as well as stillbirth … was within the boundary that we would have expected,” he said. “So that’s how we concluded there was no difference.”

In order to broaden the findings of the study past that of Ontario, Shah said they had looked at another study conducted by some researchers at the Public Health Agency of Canada that measured preterm and stillbirth rates across the country from March to August in 2020.

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That study had found preterm births were “unchanged” during that period compared to previous years, as well as a slight increase in stillbirths in April. Shah reasoned that the one month measurement in increase was probably a fluctuation due to natural causes as opposed to the pandemic, and that overall that study’s findings were the same as his own.

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A previous study conducted by researchers at the University of Manitoba at the onset of COVID-19’s spread had found that fewer babies were being born prematurely in Canada and in several countries around the world during the pandemic.

Merilee Brockway, post-doctoral researcher at the University of Manitoba’s Azad Lab who worked on the study, said on 980 CKNW’s Mornings with Simi in August of 2020 that the apparent reduced rate of premature births happening then could be due to several pandemic-related reasons.

Read more: Major new Calgary study tackles ‘really big problem’ of premature births

Brockway said that the rates could either be linked to expecting mothers not being forced to work regular hours late into their pregnancy anymore due to many businesses shifting to working from home practices, as well as either the reduction in air pollution or exposure to other infections which were a result of widespread lockdown measures.

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In the end, Shah said he was not surprised by his study’s findings and instead said that the earlier findings on preterm birth rates were too premature.

“My thoughts would that I wasn’t surprised — I was surprised when the story started to come out [that more babies were being born prematurely],” he said. “I think there was a story in the newspaper and TV as well.”

“That’s where I told that we need to wait, we are doing this Ontario-wide study and we need to look at it from a holistic perspective.”

with files from the Canadian Press

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