Confusing messaging aimed at pregnant women about the safety of COVID-19 vaccines has allowed disinformation to spread, campaigners have warned.
It emerged today almost a fifth of the most critically ill coronavirus patients in England in recent months were unvaccinated pregnant women.
NHS England said that, between July 1 and September 30, 17% of COVID patients receiving treatment through a special lung-bypass machine were mothers-to-be who had not had their first dose of a Covid-19 vaccine.
They accounted for 32% of all females aged 16-49 in intensive care on extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO), a situation where a patient's lungs are so damaged by COVID that a ventilator cannot maintain oxygen levels.
Watch: Unvaccinated pregnant women warned of Covid danger
In contrast, the figure was 6% at the start of the pandemic in March 2020.
Campaigners including charity Pregnant Then Screwed and the independent fact-checkers Full Fact say there is "a great deal of fear and uncertainty among pregnant women".
"Pregnant people have a relatively low uptake of COVID-19 vaccines," said Full Fact's deputy editor, Claire Milne. "There is a big effort to address this, but messaging around the safety of the vaccines in pregnancy has been at times confused, and this has allowed misinformation to spread."
The charity say they have received hundreds of questions on the issue.
"If you’re pregnant it’s understandable that you want to do the right thing for yourself and your unborn baby," said Milne.
"From the hundreds of questions we’ve been sent, it’s clear that there’s a great deal of fear and uncertainty among pregnant women.”
Initially, pregnant women were excluded from the vaccine rollout, but advice was changed in April 2021 after it was ruled to be safe.
Data from 100,000 COVID vaccinations in pregnancy in England and Scotland, and 160,000 in the US, has not shown any harm to the foetus or infant in instances where pregnant women have been vaccinated.
However, many pregnant women remain hesitant.
Clare Bromley, 33, from Kent, was hospitalised after she contracted COVID and was told she may have needed a C-section just 26 weeks into her pregnancy.
After spending a month in hospital, she was discharged and did not need a C-section - however, she urged other hesitant pregnant women to get vaccinated.
"I completely understand the hesitation not to get vaccinated when you are growing a child inside you, and, after experiencing two miscarriages before the pandemic, the fear of being pregnant again with the worry of COVID was sending my anxiety through the roof," she said.
“But, after what happened, I can honestly say that the risk of not having the COVID vaccine far outweighs any doubts about having it.”
Full Fact's Milne criticised the government, saying it had added to the confusion.
"The government’s Yellow Card scheme, for example, has inadvertently contributed to the spread of misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines," she said.
"We contacted the MHRA [Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency] earlier in the year about this and they’ve since included clearer warnings that these reports cover possible, rather than confirmed, cases of vaccine side effects."
The Yellow Card scheme allows the people to voluntary report adverse side-effects of medicines or vaccines.
Health secretary Sajid Javid has described the numbers of pregnant women seriously ill in hospital with COVID as "desperately sad", adding the vaccines will provide "significant protection".
However, the National Childbirth Trust (NCT) has also criticised the government, describing the data as a "damning indictment of the lack of attention given to this vulnerable group as restrictions have eased".
“We’ve been extremely disappointed to hear of so much misinformation and confusion about the vaccination programme and so little focus on what’s needed to keep vulnerable groups safe as restrictions have eased," said Sarah McMullen, director of impact and engagement.
Full Fact and Pregnant Then Screwed have set up a free WhatsApp helpline for women with questions about vaccine disinformation at: +44 7521 770 995.
Watch: Doctor begs pregnant women to get vaccinated