The director of the Health Service Executive's National Women and Infants Programme has said it is "more important" that pregnant women protect themselves from Covid-19 than the rest of the population, but he does not think all pregnant women should be automatically vaccinated.

Professor Peter McKenna was speaking on RTÉ's Today with Claire Byrne in relation to six stillbirths in Ireland linked to coronavirus-related infection of the placenta - Covid placentitis.

He said the advice to minimise contacts "applies to pregnant women even more than it does to the rest of the population".

Prof McKenna moved to reassure expectant mothers that 60,000 babies have been born in Ireland since the pandemic began of which there were six stillbirths linked to the condition.

He said it is important that if pregnant women "come into contact with Covid" that they inform the hospital looking after their pregnancy so they can be closely monitored.

"The general public health advice, which is to minimise contacts, applies to pregnant women even more than it does the rest of the population. I think that goes without saying.

"Before this information became available our concern was mostly with how Covid affected the pregnant woman. Ireland has done well in general terms in that regard.

"There has been no cases where a pregnant woman has died as a result of Covid. So, the fact that this can affect the baby does change the emphasis, and I think it becomes even more important that pregnant women do not come in contact with Covid and if they do, that their hospital looking after their pregnancy is aware of this, and is able to take steps to follow them up closely."

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In relation to the vaccination of pregnant women, Prof McKenna said he does not believe the vaccination schedule should change for this cohort.

"The current advice that if you're in a high-risk category, and you're pregnant, say for example you've got heart disease or you've got renal disease, or any other disease that poses a significant risk, the correct advice is that you should be vaccinated because if you do get Covid it poses a very real risk to that mother, never mind to the baby."

Prof McKenna said: "I think that it's a very big step in saying that if you're high risk you should be vaccinated, to going on and saying all pregnant women should be vaccinated.

"The reason I say this is that the condition that I'm talking about - Covid placentitis - the disease has been here for 15 months, and we're only beginning to become aware of this possible complication.

"So it's difficult to see how we can extrapolate that to saying that for all pregnant women the vaccine couldn't possibly have any complications.

"So out of an abundance of caution I would say it's a big step from saying, pregnant women at risk should be vaccinated, to all pregnant women should be vaccinated."

Prof McKenna said it is "strange" that health authorities in the rest of the world have not reported similar findings in relation to coronavirus-related placentitis.

"It is strange that this part of the world, which hasn't suffered hugely from Covid is the one part of the world where this appears to be a bigger issue than it is elsewhere".

Babies have died as a result of Covid-19 elsewhere, but he said, "in the numbers that we're talking about, that hasn't been recognised, outside of Ireland, to the best of my knowledge".

Prof McKenna said it is "noteworthy" that the cases of Covid-19 related placentitis appear to have happened since Christmas, "when we had the enormous surge in numbers".

"It could well be that this was associated with our surge that we had after Christmas when the infection was rampant in the community. That being the case, one would have every expectation that we're going to see it happening a lot less from now on."

Prof McKenna said that the placenta begins to function in taking over the care of the baby from 12 weeks gestation, after the first trimester.