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Researchers seeking COVID-positive, breastfeeding mothers for study on immune response

Posted at 9:32 AM, Feb 12, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-12 09:32:23-05

CLEVELAND — It can be an agonizing decision for pregnant or nursing women right now as they question whether to get vaccinated for coronavirus.

But for Michelle Sakala, when it came time for her to make that decision, she says she realized she could do what was best for her and her family while also helping everyone else in the process. However, her first instinct to was to say no to the COVID-19 vaccine.

"It was advised that pregnant women not receive the vaccine, and that's all it said on the disclaimer was that it wasn't advised," she said. “Nobody can say for sure that if I were to get it, I’d be perfectly fine.”

The more she thought about it, the more she wondered why not?

“With my husband in the military I thought that if mom goes down everybody goes down. So, I wanted to protect myself to know that I could be there as a full-time mother to my children, as a full-time spouse to my husband and not have such a fear of getting COVID and possibly not doing well with it.”

Sakala, who is a nurse herself, consulted a doctor she works with. She also did her own research about the effects of the vaccine on breastfeeding moms. She wanted to make sure she did what was best for her second four-month-old daughter, Monroe. At the same time, the University of Massachusetts Amherst was enrolling participants in a study looking at whether vaccinated mothers’ antibodies onto their babies.

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According to the university website, “it is thought that antibodies produced in response to SARS-CoV-2 infection are present in breastmilk and may help protect the breastfed baby. There is a general agreement that women diagnosed with COVID-19 should continue to breastfeed. We want to determine the immune response to COVID-19 infection that is present in breastmilk of women. We are especially interested in determining the time-course of the antibody response.”

Needless to say, Sakala got the shot.

"Hopefully there's enough antibodies in there that I've given them to my daughter to protect her," Sakala said.

Now Sakala sends samples of her breastmilk, along with little Monroe’s stool, to researchers.

"I feel like I'm doing something, I feel like that little ounce of liquid gold that they got from me hopefully shows something."

Though, her decision to vaccinate did not come without concerns and questions from her friends and family about whether she was harming her daughter while breastfeeding.

“I feel like I made the right decision whether people want to say something negative that I am hurting my daughter or I'm hurting my family, I think COVID coming into my family would hurt us even more," Sakala explained. "I know I made the right choice, and I made the right choice for everybody."

A blog posted on the UMass Amherst page shows the study’s results. It reads, “a strong humoral immune response is present in the colostrum of women who were infected with SARS-CoV-2 before delivering. High levels of 9 inflammatory markers were also present in the colostrum. The evolution and duration of the antibody response, as well as dynamics of the cytokine response, remain to be determined. Our results also indicate that future large-scale studies can be conducted with milk easily collected on paper spot cards.”

For Sakala, being a part of the study gives her an opportunity to be a part of the solution.

"I'm not anybody special. I'm just somebody trying to figure out how to get normal back," she said. "I need to know that I'm doing something."

Right now, the study she is participating in is closed to applicants who have been vaccinated, but it is looking for women who are pregnant or nursing, are COVID-positive or experiencing symptoms of the virus. For more information on how to join, click here.