Breast milk of lactating mothers who have been vaccinated against COVID-19 have antibodies that fight illness: Study

Mother baby
Mother baby

According to new research from the University of Florida, the breast milk of lactating moms who have been vaccinated against COVID-19 includes a considerable amount of antibodies that may help protect nursing infants from the sickness.

The study was supported by the Children’s Miracle Network and published in the journal Breastfeeding Medicine.

“Our findings indicate that vaccination results in a significant increase in antibodies against SARS-CoV-2 — the virus that causes COVID-19 — in breast milk, implying that vaccinated mothers can pass on this immunity to their infants, which we are currently investigating,” said Joseph Larkin III, PhD, senior author of the study and an associate professor in the UF/IFAS department.

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When infants are born, their immune systems are still developing, making it difficult for them to fight infections alone. They are also frequently too young to respond adequately to certain types of immunizations, according to Josef Neu, M.D., one of the study’s co-authors and a professor in the Department of Paediatrics, Division of Neonatology, at the University of Florida College of Medicine.

Breast milk enables nursing mothers to offer newborns with “passive immunity” during this critical phase, Neu explained.

“Consider breast milk as a toolbox with a variety of different tools that assist the newborn in preparing for life. Vaccination gives another weapon to the toolbox, one that may be particularly effective at preventing COVID-19 infection “Neu remarked. “Our findings strongly imply that immunizations can help protect both mother and child, providing yet another compelling reason for pregnant or lactating women to get vaccinated.”

Between December 2020 and March 2021, when the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines became available to health care personnel for the first time, the study was undertaken.

The researchers recruited 21 lactating health care workers who had never been infected with COVID-19 for the study. The research team collected breast milk and blood samples from mothers three times: prior to immunisation, following the first dosage, and following the second dose.

“We saw a substantial antibody response in blood and breast milk following the second dosage — around a hundredfold rise over pre-vaccination levels,” explained Lauren Stafford, a doctoral student in Larkin’s group.

“These levels are also greater than those reported following spontaneous virus infection,” stated Vivian Valcarce, M.D., a resident in the Department of Paediatrics, Division of Neonatology, at the University of Florida College of Medicine. Valcarce and Stafford co-authored the study’s findings.

Vaccinating moms in order to safeguard their infants is not novel, Valcarce explained.

“Pregnant moms are typically immunised against whooping cough and flu, which can be devastating infections for infants. Because infants can contract COVID-19, systematic immunisation of mothers against the virus may become a reality in the future “As Valcarce stated.

With this in mind, the research team is continuing to investigate the protective effects of breast milk carrying COVID-19 antibodies acquired by vaccination on infants who eat it.

“We’re interested in seeing whether children who ingest breast milk with these antibodies build their own immunity to COVID-19,” Larkin explained. “In addition, we’d like to learn more about the antibodies themselves, such as how long they last in breast milk and their effectiveness at neutralising the virus.”

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Neu’s lab is also investigating the medicinal potential of breast milk produced by immunised moms.

Despite the unanswered questions, the researchers remain optimistic and encouraged by their initial findings.

“There is still so much we are learning about breast milk and all of its benefits, and that is what makes this research so fascinating — not just for scientists, but for everyone,” said Stafford, who is pursuing a degree in microbiology and cell science at the University of Florida/IFAS College of Agricultural and Life Sciences.

“We are particularly encouraged by the fact that other other concurrent trials conducted throughout the world have revealed antibodies in the breastmilk of vaccinated moms,” Neu said. “This indicates that our work adds to an expanding body of evidence.”

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