Jane* was in the middle of a new year’s catch-up with a friend when they shared their belief that the COVID-19 vaccine has an adverse effect on female fertility
“I was disappointed when I heard it because it was someone close in age to me, so with similar access to do their own research,” Jane says. “I didn’t share it with my friends and family as I didn’t want to contribute to that narrative. It’s embarrassing to have people you know and love believe this.”
There is no evidence to show that the COVID-19 vaccine affects fertility. NHS guidelines on the COVID-19 vaccine and female health include a statement from Dr. Edward Morris, president of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, that reads: “We want to reassure women that there is no evidence to suggest that COVID-19 vaccines will affect fertility. Claims of any effect of COVID-19 vaccination on fertility are speculative and not supported by any data.”
Despite the science, concerns about the impact of the vaccine on women’s reproductive health are worryingly widespread. According to a December survey of 55,000 Brits by Find Out Now, more than a quarter of women aged between 18 and 34 said they would refuse the jab, with worries about fertility a key reason for refusal. In the survey overall, only 18 percent of respondents said that they would not take the vaccine.
Misinformation concerning female fertility and coronavirus vaccines has been rife since December, when the Pfizer-BioNTech and Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines were approved for use in the UK. That month, as first doses of the vaccine were being administered across the country, a blog named Health and Money News claimed that Michael Yeadon – falsely presented as the “head of Pfizer research” – had suggested that taking the vaccine was akin to “female sterilisation”. (There is no evidence that any of the COVID-19 vaccines approved for use cause infertility, and the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation advises that “women do not need to avoid pregnancy after vaccination”).
The blog post quickly spread on social media. As well as the false comment from Pfizer, it inaccurately presented information released by the UK government for healthcare providers, which initially stated that it was unclear whether the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine had an impact on fertility. This information has since been amended by the government to state that “animal studies do not indicate direct or indirect harmful effects with respect to reproductive toxicity,” and that “there were no vaccine-related effects on female fertility, pregnancy, or embryo-foetal offspring development”.
Rebecca first came across the false claims that the COVID-19 vaccine adversely affects female fertility on Instagram and Facebook, shared by people she followed. She had never been swayed by anti-vaccine sentiment before and didn’t know anyone who was themselves an anti-vaxxer. She became particularly worried about a post that claimed that the impact of the vaccine on the female reproductive system had not yet been tested, and women should be cautious when accepting it. (There is no evidence that the COVID-19 vaccine impacts female fertility). While Rebecca is still willing to have the vaccine, reading such posts has given her a lot of anxiety.
“It’s a lot to handle when there’s so much uncertainty around,” Rebecca says. “I remember just reading it and thinking, ‘This is one of those things you really don’t want to hear’.”
Sophia also saw misinformation about the COVID-19 vaccine and female fertility through a post shared on Instagram. “When it first started coming out, I was quite scared,” she says, “because I thought, ‘Why hasn’t it been tested on women’s reproductive health?’” (There is no evidence that the COVID-19 vaccine impacts female fertility). Like Rebecca, Sophia still plans to take the vaccine when it is offered, but the claims have caused her unwanted stress.
Rebecca blames the government’s mixed messaging during the pandemic – in particular the U-turn over Christmas gatherings – for the lack of trust she feels towards the vaccination drive. She was also worried by ministers’ decision to administer the vaccine’s two doses to people 12 weeks apart, after initially planning a gap of 21 days. (The UK’s chief medical officers have defended this move, stating that the “great majority” of protection comes from the first jab.)
“I wish it had been handled better,” Rebecca says. “I think that’s where the mistrust comes from, because the scientists are saying one thing, and the government is doing another.”
As well as confusing messaging from official sources, Jane points out that the isolation imposed by the pandemic has an impact on how people consume and find information. “People underestimate the value of community leaders, church leaders and so on,” she says. “In a time where churches and community groups can’t meet, where do people get accurate information they trust?”
Anti-vaccine sentiment existed on social media prior to COVID-19, but the pandemic has provided it with a much wider audience. “What has changed during the pandemic is that anti-vaccine messaging has become more mainstream,” says Dr. Stephanie Alice Baker, a senior lecturer in sociology at City, University of London. Another new phenomenon is that these “concerns are shared online by many of those who would normally consider themselves pro-vaccine,” she adds.
The targeting of women’s concerns around reproduction, fertility and children by anti-vaxxers is also not exclusive to the COVID-19 vaccine. “Women and mothers in particular, are common targets for vaccine misinformation, as these are generally the individuals who will determine whether children are vaccinated,” says Dr. Baker.
The most notorious case of vaccine misinformation that targeted mothers was the MMR scandal in the 1990s. A since-discredited Lancet article falsely claimed a link between the measles vaccine and autism, leading many to refuse to vaccinate their children. The ramifications of this can still be seen today: a 2020 Gallup poll found that 46 percent of Americans are “unsure” if vaccines cause autism.
So, how do we fight COVID-19 vaccine misinformation, particularly that which targets women? Professor Stephan Lewandowsky of the University of Bristol’s School of Psychology says that “the most important thing is to make the vaccine readily available and to make it easy for people to get it”. He adds that doctors, who are the most trusted sources of medical information, must be given “the tools to encourage people to take the vaccine”.
After encountering vaccine misinformation on Instagram, Sophia spoke to her mum who reassured her. “If I didn’t have people around me who are a bit more knowledgeable about the vaccine, or access to information on it, it could have put me off,” she says. One of her friends was close to refusing the vaccine, but has now come round.
Young women are currently a low-priority group for coronavirus vaccination, but social media posts and articles that undermine scientific research are a risk to everyone’s health. It’s up to the government to curtail the spread of misinformation on social media platforms, and ensure that information about the vaccine is readily available to anyone who needs it.
*Names have been changed.