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Why false claims about Covid-19 vaccines and infertility are so powerful

Why false claims about Covid-19 vaccines and infertility are so powerful

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This spring, a Miami private school banned staff from getting the Covid-19 vaccine. The reason, according to the school’s co-founder, was “tens of thousands of women all over the world” had experienced reproductive problems just from being near someone who was vaccinated.

While there is no medical evidence for this claim, the school, Centner Academy, was firm: “Until this topic is investigated more thoroughly, it is in the best interests of the children to protect them from the unknown implications of being in close proximity for the entire day with a teacher who has very recently taken the Covid-19 injection,” a letter to parents stated.

Centner has not been alone in its concerns — it’s become a common theme among vaccine skeptics that getting the shot, or even being around someone who has gotten it, can somehow harm women’s fertility.

This idea, however, has no basis in science. The vaccine “has been studied among women who are trying to get pregnant, who are pregnant, who are breastfeeding” and “we have not seen any adverse impacts of the vaccines on fertility,” Celine Gounder, an infectious disease specialist at NYU and Bellevue Hospital, told Vox. This message has been confirmed by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, the Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine, and a long list of medical experts.

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But the myth that vaccines can harm reproductive health remains concerningly widespread, traveling from a handful of anti-vaccine activists to conservative commentators to influencers who amplify it on Instagram and YouTube. In one June survey, 25 percent of respondents and more than 52 percent of those who did not intend to get vaccinated said they believed vaccines could damage women’s fertility.

False claims about vaccines and fertility also tap into larger trends in American culture: a skepticism around medical treatments and an emphasis on natural “wellness,” especially where female reproduction is concerned. Wellness ideology can offer women, who have historically been dismissed and discriminated against in medical settings, a sense of control over their bodies, even if that control is based on false information.

“So many women have had that experience of not being taken seriously,” Carol-Ann Farkas, an English professor at the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences who studies health and pop culture, told Vox. And purveyors of anti-vaccine disinformation can offer not just a sense that someone is listening but a feeling of clarity and certainty that real science can’t always match. “People want to know answers,” Farkas said.

All this means that combating worries about the vaccines and fertility will require not just debunking the misinformation involved, but addressing the ways the medical system has failed American women — and allowed an amorphous wellness culture to swoop in and fill the gap.

How the false claim that vaccines cause infertility came about

Myths around Covid-19 vaccines and infertility follow a few different patterns.

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First, there are misconceptions around the vaccine and people’s menstrual cycles. Some people have reported unusually heavy periods after getting the Covid-19 shot, which isn’t necessarily surprising — “there is definitely a connection between your immune system and your menstrual cycle,” Gounder said. But these effects, if someone experiences them at all, should be short-lived. “You can have a change in your menstrual cycle, but that does not affect your fertility,” Gounder said.

Then there’s the idea that your vaccine could harm someone else’s reproductive system. This myth is often connected to the idea of vaccine shedding, in which a person “sheds” parts of an inoculation from the body after receiving a shot. The idea is that these shed components could potentially throw off other people’s menstrual cycles or otherwise harm their reproductive systems. One viral article, for example, makes the false claim that young girls and postmenopausal women are suddenly getting periods, sometimes with “grapefruit-sized blood clots,” just from being near vaccinated people.

Shedding is a real phenomenon, seen with vaccines made from attenuated live viruses, such as the chickenpox vaccine. However, the viruses used in these vaccines are in a weakened state: Even if they are “shed” by someone after vaccination, they are unlikely to infect anyone else. And, perhaps most crucially, none of the Covid-19 vaccines currently in use in the US are made from live viruses. “There is no virus to shed,” Gounder said.

Indeed, the main way your vaccine can impact someone else is by protecting them: When you’re vaccinated, you’re less likely to give that person Covid-19, Gounder added.

Finally, there’s a separate claim that vaccines developed to attack the coronavirus spike protein could also attack a different protein, syncytin-1, that occurs in the human placenta. However, Alice Lu-Culligan and Akiko Iwasaki, a professor of immunobiology at Yale, studied the spike protein and found no meaningful similarity to syncytin-1, they wrote in the New York Times earlier this year. They also studied serum from women with Covid-19 and found no effect of coronavirus antibodies on syncytin-1. Essentially, there is no basis for the idea that vaccines would harm this protein.

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The claims that vaccines can cause infertility have no science to back them up, but they’ve been amplified by high-profile people. In particular, Naomi Wolf — the author of the feminist book The Beauty Myth who’s now known for her anti-vaccine views — tweeted a link in April to a Facebook group containing anti-vaccine activists, claiming that “Hundreds of women on this page say that they are having bleeding/clotting after vaccination, or that they bleed oddly AROUND vaccinated women. Unconfirmed, needs more investigation, but lots of reports.”

Wolf’s tweet got attention and began to amplify the myths around vaccines and fertility, according to NPR. The myths also got another boost when Centner Academy announced its policy, gaining news coverage in the US and abroad. Sherri Tenpenny, a prominent anti-vaccine activist who’s been identified as one of 12 people spreading a majority of vaccine disinformation on social media, has also promoted the idea that Covid-19 vaccines harm fertility, falsely claiming that the coronavirus spike protein “can bind to the ovary” and that vaccines are part of a conspiracy by “the globalists and the de-population eugenicists, the stated Satanists who are out to destroy the world.”

Not all vaccine skeptics lead with such inflammatory language. While social media platforms have taken some steps to curb disinformation, popular wellness influencers in recent months have shared anti-vaccine messages mixed in with recipes for smoothie bowls or advice on home births. People who don’t oppose vaccines can get sucked in, at least momentarily. And the mix of anti-vaccine sentiment with tips about pregnancy, birth, and breastfeeding can make it seem like choosing not to get vaccinated is the “natural,” or even responsible, choice for a would-be parent.

Part of the reason that false claims about the Covid-19 shot and the reproductive system have been able to get traction is that they feed into an existing discourse around reproductive health and wellness that has for years been encouraging women, in particular, to avoid vaccines and other medical treatments. As Farkas put it, “women have been primed to mistrust medical authority throughout their whole lives.”

Misinformation about vaccines and infertility is part of a larger movement around wellness, specifically centered on women

Conversations around vaccine skepticism and reproductive health have overlapped for years, with many of the same prominent people promoting both anti-vaccine sentiment and a supposedly “natural” approach to birth control, pregnancy, and parenting.

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One such person is Mayim Bialik, whose past statements started getting renewed scrutiny when she was selected as a Jeopardy co-host earlier this summer. She said in 2009 that hers was “a non-vaccinating family.” She has also endorsed skepticism around hormonal birth control, calling it “a powerful drug with a lot of side effects.” As E.J. Dickson reports at Rolling Stone, Bialik is also a home birth advocate who said in a 2010 interview that “there are those among us who believe that if the baby can’t survive a home labor, it is OK for it to pass peacefully.” While Bialik said she herself did not subscribe to this view, she said that “some” feel that “if a baby cannot make it through birth, it is not favored evolutionarily.”

Bialik has since walked back her comments on vaccines, saying that while her family “delayed vaccinations for reasons you don’t necessarily get to know about,” her children have had vaccines and she has been vaccinated against Covid-19. And a spokesperson for Bialik told Vox that “she believes in the science behind vaccines and traditional medicine.” But Bialik is just one of many celebrities and influencers to question vaccines as part of a larger, allegedly holistic or wellness-based ethos around reproductive and family health.

Another is Christiane Northrup, an OB-GYN once described by Harper’s Bazaar as “something of a den mother to the New Age and anti-vaxx communities.” Boasting more than 700,000 followers across Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube, Northrup advocates unmedicated childbirth, which she says “can empower a woman for the rest of her life, leaving her with unshakable trust in her own Mother Bear wisdom” and even eliminate her fear of death. She is dubious about birth control pills, writing, “as long as you don’t mind putting your ovaries on ‘automatic pilot’ and ignoring your fertility, there’s nothing that comes close to the pill for sheer convenience.” And this year, she came out against the Covid-19 vaccine, saying it would disrupt human enlightenment and “vibrations.”

Such voices are often powerful, especially in a time like the pandemic when actual science is rife with uncertainties and questions. Northrup, for example, is “so good at selling her interpretation of what it means to have to be a healthy woman,” says Farkas.

And it’s no surprise that New Age-inflected skepticism around traditional medical treatments — and embrace of alternatives — have caught on especially in the realm of women’s reproductive health. Fertility, pregnancy, and childbirth can be both highly important and deeply fraught for women and anyone who can get pregnant. “It’s one thing for me to care for or neglect my own body,” Farkas said, “but when you’re trying to create a whole other body,” it’s an added layer of responsibility, not to mention another set of complex and confusing medical principles to understand.

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Moreover, a patriarchal society creates “this added burden for women to do womanhood right and to do motherhood right,” Farkas said. Long before Covid-19, women felt pressure to eschew epidurals, baby formula, and other medical treatments, feeling that “somehow every biomedical intervention that you accept takes away from this ideal of natural feminine motherhood.”

Meanwhile, Northrup and other New Age or holistic influencers offer a path to good womanhood and good health — as long as you do all the “right” things (like meditation, cleanses, or supplements) and avoid the wrong ones (like vaccines or C-sections). Their recommendations may be complex, but they can feel empowering because, unlike traditional medical treatments, “it’s all stuff that you can do yourself,” Farkas said.

That may be especially appealing to women, who have often been dismissed, ignored, or mistreated in medical settings. For example, clinicians have long underestimated and undertreated women’s pain — especially Black women’s pain — because of gender and racial stereotypes. Such stereotypes may contribute to the underdiagnosis of common ailments like endometriosis, an often painful disorder in which tissue similar to the uterine lining grows outside the uterus. It affects one in 10 women but takes an average of 10 years to diagnose.

Moreover, many reproductive health issues have historically been shrouded in stigma and silence. For example, issues like infertility or painful periods were things people were embarrassed to discuss with family members, let alone in public. “For decades, these were things you didn’t talk about at all,” Marcelle Cedars, a reproductive endocrinologist at the University of California San Francisco, told Vox. Even today, people may be uncomfortable discussing issues around sex and fertility with their doctors, preferring to do their own research online.

But when they do so, they can be bombarded with misinformation that’s hard to distinguish from fact. After all, Cedars said, “everything on the internet looks like data.”

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Combating infertility misinformation means getting at the roots of wellness culture

Because misinformation around vaccines and fertility — and around women’s health, wellness, and medical care more generally — can be seductive and convincing, it’s not easy to combat. People need correct information from credible experts in vaccines and infectious diseases, Gounder said, as well as education in how to identify conspiracy theories. Social media companies have taken some steps to curb misinformation on their platforms, but some researchers say they need to be more transparent about how conspiracy theories spread online and who’s coming into contact with them.

And when it comes to convincing people to get a vaccine, just telling them what to do may not be the best approach. “We spend too much time saying, ‘You should do this,’” Cedars said, “and I think we need to spend more time saying, ‘What are your concerns?’” For people who are worried about preserving their ability to have children in the future, “their concerns are real, and we need to validate those and try to address those rather than speaking chapter and verse,” she explained.

Making space for questions is especially important when clinicians are treating people who have historically faced discrimination in medical settings because of their race or gender. “When you’re asking questions, you’re turning over the power of the conversation to the other person,” which is especially important when someone has felt disempowered in the past, Gounder said.

It’s also crucial to change the way doctors treat patients so that they don’t feel disempowered in the first place. Among undergraduates hoping for a career in medicine, Farkas says she already sees the attitude “that doctor knows best and patients will just find all kinds of nonsense on the internet.” But such an approach is paternalistic and dismissive. “Changing the culture of medical education is important,” Farkas said.

In the short term, even as they make space for concerns, doctors need to be clear with patients about the dangers of Covid-19 — a very real, proven risk to anyone who is unvaccinated, especially if they become pregnant.

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“Young, healthy women are getting very sick, on ventilators,” with babies even being delivered early because their mothers have Covid-19, Cedars said. In talking about reproductive health and Covid-19, if people are worried about a theoretical risk to their future fertility from getting the vaccine, “we just have to focus on the very real risks we know do exist from the virus itself,” Cedars said.

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