Highlighting our important COVID-19 pregnancy research for International Women’s Day

While we have faced many unknowns throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers and clinicians at Monash Health have undertaken important work so that we can continue to provide safe, timely and high-quality care. We spoke with two women whose important work has helped us to care for pregnant women during the pandemic.

Protecting pregnant women from infectious diseases

Associate Professor Michelle Giles, Director, Infections in Pregnancy, has been leading studies that help us to understand the health challenges that pregnant women could face if infected with COVID-19.

“Our study follows women who have recently given birth, and we test for antibodies of COVID-19 to see if they were infected while pregnant. This is helping us determine how common it is for pregnant women to get infected during pregnancy,” said Michelle.

“By monitoring and supporting women who have tested positive to COVID-19, we’re able to learn how their pregnancies and babies were affected”.

Research co-authored by Associate Professor Giles in August 2020 showed that severe and critical disease rates matched those of the non-pregnant public and found that vertical transmission between mum and baby may be possible.

Associate Professor Giles’ team are also uncovering whether treatments for Hepatitis C are effective for pregnant women, so that the infection is not passed onto their baby.

“When clinical trials first started to investigate Hepatitis C treatments, pregnant women were unfortunately not included. We’re now extending these treatments to pregnant women so we can discover their effectiveness and if we can reduce the chance of a child contracting the infection,” said Associate Professor Giles.

Delivering care to pregnant women during a pandemic

Dr Kirsten Palmer, Head of Maternal Fetal Medicine at Monash Medical Centre, has supported a number of initiatives to help deliver care to pregnant women during the pandemic, such as leading the integration of telehealth into the delivery of maternity care at Monash Health.

“The health and safety requirements of COVID-19 meant that our team had to quickly change the way we delivered maternity care to pregnant women. Proudly, we were able to quickly adapt and can now provide a flexible telehealth option to women,” said Dr Palmer.

Dr Palmer’s work in population health became very focused on COVID-19 during 2020, collaborating with her colleagues across Melbourne and Victoria to support the Collaborative Maternity and Newborn Dashboard (CoMaND) and COVID-19 Health Outcomes in Pregnancy and the Newborn (CHOPAN) registry.

“In my work, I collaborate with many amazing research scientists (mainly women) on discovery science projects that seek to better understand disorders relating to placental function in pregnancy, and how this can impact on future health outcomes for both mothers and babies.”

“I also lead clinical trials exploring new therapies to improve outcomes for women and babies, particularly in pregnancies complicated by placental disorders, such as preeclampsia and fetal growth restriction. The largest is the PROTECT Me trial, which is exploring whether maternal melatonin supplementation in pregnancy can improve long term outcomes for brain development in growth restricted babies,” said Dr Palmer.

Reflecting on International Women’s Day

While International Women’s Day marks a call to action for accelerating women’s equality, Dr Palmer does acknowledge that she still faces challenges in her career.

“As a woman, there can be additional challenges to overcome in this space. While the challenges of combining career with parenthood exist in all areas, the unique challenges of pregnancy, birth and motherhood combined with scientific endeavour, as well as scientific output – on which performance is mainly assessed – is a difficult path to navigate. Sadly, it’s a path that sees many women choose to leave science altogether,” said Dr Palmer.

“While there are growing examples of outstanding female clinician researchers, there were few female mentors in my field from whom to draw guidance on how to tackle this. I have been able to navigate this thanks to some truly fabulous peers, who are inspirational to come to work with, fabulous male, and female mentors, and a driving passion for the value and importance of the work I do, as both a clinician and a researcher.”

Associate Professor Giles, describes the biggest challenge of being a woman in science is the balancing act of having a family, working full time and managing a research portfolio.

“There are certain priorities which come with being a mum and being a head researcher and sometimes it can be difficult juggling them together. There are still responsibilities as a mother that take time and priority. Balancing that and working in research is always a challenge.”

At Monash Health, we’re incredibly proud of Michelle, Kirsten and all of the women in our team who continue to inspire us, and are giving us a better understanding of the unprecedented world we live in.

Approved by Tony Korman, Ryan Hodges & Andrea Rindt

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