If there's one thing giving most of the nation hope, right now, it's the wild success of the UK vaccination roll-out. The government confirmed that the target to vaccinate the 15m most vulnerable people in the country with their first dose of one of two approved vaccines (Pfizer/BioNTech and Oxford/AstraZeneca) was met on Valentine's Day, which is adorable.
But not everyone is hyped to line up outside their local inoculation centre, arm outstretched. As you might already know. Right now, fears around the jabs in younger women are prevalent.
How many younger women are vaccine-hesitant?
One poll of 55,000 people in Britain carried out by Find Out Now in December 2020 found that 18-to 34-year-old women are the group most likely (27%) to say they would refuse a vaccine when offered. For context, according to the same findings, nationally, 78.2% of people said they would take up inoculation if offered tomorrow, and 18.3% said 'no.'
Why? Lots of things could be going on. A 2020 inquiry found that trust in the UK health system is 'broken' and that some women have been let down by scandals including the vaginal mesh debacle, with many being dismissed by doctors when they raised concerns. These gendered issues could breed skepticism towards new medicines. In the Black community, a history of medical racism and exploitation has also resulted in distrust of the medical establishment among some people, Dr Annabel Sowemimo, a community sexual and reproductive health doctor and the founder of ‘Decolonising Contraception' previously told WH.
Part of this puzzle might also be due to an update in government advice, with regards to the vaccine and pregnant women, which occurred earlier in the year and could have caused confusion (more on this, later.) Another piece is this: one major piece of disinformation is being targeted at people in this category, via social media. Namely, that the medicines will cause issues with your ability to conceive and carry a baby.
This looks like it's having an impact. Many of those spoken to for the Find Out Now survey said that fears around a rumoured (but untrue) impact on fertility and pregnancy were a key reason for their trepidation.
When it comes to myths around the Covid vaccines and fertility, where did they come from, how did they seep into the culture and exactly why are they inaccurate?
Where did the Covid vaccine fertility disinformation come from?
This disinformation began circulating last year, and mainly centered on claims that the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine can cause infertility or could cause your body to attack a placenta if you were already pregnant. One such lie, which spread rapidly through social media, was a blog post in which a man named Michael Yeadon was incorrectly cited as the 'head of Pfizer research'. The post claimed that he had stated that the vaccine was similar to 'female sterilisation.'
This isn't isolated. A recent report by the Centre for Countering Digital Hate found that social media pages run by anti-vaxxers have increased their following by at least 7.8 million people since 2019.
So, does the Covid vaccine affect fertility?
No. In a statement on this topic, Dr Edward Morris, President at the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, said: '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.
'There is no biologically plausible mechanism by which current vaccines would cause any impact on women's fertility. Evidence has not been presented that women who have been vaccinated have gone on to have fertility problems.'
Similarly, Professor Lucy Chappell, a professor in obstetrics at King's College London and spokesperson for the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists said: 'I can see absolutely no basis for concerns about any of the Covid-19 vaccines that are licensed in the UK and fertility.'
In a session with the BBC, deputy chief medical officer for England, Jonathan Van-Tam said: 'I have never heard of a vaccine that affects fertility.' He described the myth as: 'a nasty, pernicious scare story, but that's all it is.'
Of vaccine safety more broadly, Dr Craig Hartford, Committee Member of the Faculty of Pharmaceutical Medicine’s Policy and Communications Group, said:
'Vaccines approved by the MHRA are safe and effective for use. Establishing the safety of a vaccine starts way back in the early research programs in which the vaccine is tested in vitro and in vivo to determine its safety profile before even beginning to test the vaccine in human volunteer clinical studies.' He went on to describe the rigorous safety protocols that occur throughout Phase 1, 2 and 3 trials, as well as the robust procedure which requires all clinical trial data to be submitted to a regulator.
Can the Pfizer vaccine cause your body to attack a placenta?
On Facebook, a few claims have been doing the rounds that the Pfizer vaccine can cause your body to attack a placenta, in the case that you're already pregnant, or that it would attack a placenta, were you to become pregnant after having the jab.
The root of this theory is that because the vaccine trains the body to cause an immune response to the COVID-19 spike protein (you can think of this spike as the key the virus uses to unlock the door to your cells, and thus infect you) it unwittingly also trains your body to attack syncytin-1, a protein in the placenta, with which it shares a few amino acids.
This is not true, however. Virology professor Ian Jones at the University of Reading told Full Fact, via the Science Media Centre, that syncytin-1 is 'completely unrelated to the SARS [spike] protein.' He said that any risk of the jab causing your body to attack a placenta is: 'therefore essentially fictitious'.
A statement from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, in the US, said: 'Rumors that the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine results in female sterilisation because it contains a spike protein known as syncytin-1 are false. The vaccine does not contain this protein. There is no evidence that the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine would result in sterilisation of women.'
So, why are so many wild falsehoods around vaccines flying around?
'I think there are two answers,' Dr David Robert Grimes, a cancer researcher, physicist, and author of 'The Irrational Ape: Why Flawed Logic Puts us all at Risk and How Critical Thinking Can Save the World', told WH.
'One is that we’ve always had these kinds of narratives being put out. Anti-vaxx campaigners have been doing this for years and, particularly with social media, have gotten very good at it.
'Second thing is that right now, it's a scary time – we're living through a once-in-a-century pandemic. We all want information; we’re all afraid. When we're operating in a state of fear, it's the ideal environment for people who thrive off terrifying falsehoods to suck us in with them. I think they know on some level that there's no real veracity to what they’re saying, but they also know this is the best time to catch a new audience.
'For the vast majority of us, pre-pandemic, vaccination wasn’t something we were thinking about all the time. But now it’s in the papers every day... it’s become a focus. That awareness has also allowed anti-vaxxers to wax lyrical on their topic.'
I'm pregnant. Can I get the vaccine?
Hold tight, as this is a bit of a confusing one. Initially, the government, via the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), advised that, until we have further information, anyone who is pregnant or breastfeeding should not have the vaccine. This was because, as is typical with new pharmaceutical products, specific clinical trials of the vaccines on pregnant women have not been carried out.
For a small number of people, however, this advice has recently changed. Now, if you meet the 'clinically extremely vulnerable' definition, then you are advised to discuss the possibility of vaccination with your doctor. If you don't, then you are not. (This refining of policy may be one way in which confusion and distrust have been sown among women in this 18-34 category.)
Why? Because if you are in the former category, you could be at risk of serious issues with the virus, should you contract it. As such, vaccination might be a sensible precaution. When it comes to safety, the JCVI has stated that the data we have right now does not suggest that there is a safety concern when it comes to the vaccine and pregnant people. This has been affirmed by Public Health England.
At the same time, both bodies say that there is not enough evidence to recommend a jab for all who are expecting. And it remains true that, while there is no known risk associated with giving other non-live vaccines to pregnant women, we do not have specific clinical trial data in which the COVID-19 vaccines are tested in pregnancy.
You can also discuss being vaccinated if you are a frontline health or social care worker, because you may be at higher risk of exposure to the virus.
Of the move, a statement from the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists said: 'We support this risk-based approach that means clinically vulnerable pregnant women and breastfeeding women will now have access to the COVID-19 vaccination until data exist to support routine vaccination in pregnancy.'
Given this complexity, the benefits and risks of being vaccinated should be approached on an individual basis.
The RCOG says that the most likely relevant groups of pregnant women are:
Solid organ transplant recipients
Those with severe respiratory conditions including cystic fibrosis and severe asthma
Those who have homozygous sickle cell disease
Those receiving immunosuppression therapies sufficient to significantly increase risk of infection
Those receiving dialysis or with chronic kidney disease (stage 5)
Those with significant congenital or acquired heart disease
The RCOG has produced a fact sheet on vaccines and pregnancy, which you might want to take a look at, here.
It's not only British health bodies making this recommendation. On this subject, Dr Penny Ward, Visiting Professor in Pharmaceutical Medicine at King’s College London and Chair of the Education and Standards Committee of the Faculty of Pharmaceutical Medicine, said: 'The WHO [the World Health Organisation] also recommend consideration for use of the vaccine in pregnant and breastfeeding women at high risk of infection and illness (e.g. healthcare workers).'
If I'm trying for a baby, should I get the vaccine?
According to the NHS: 'You do not need to avoid pregnancy after vaccination. The vaccine cannot give you or your baby COVID-19.' However, if you have your first dose and then become pregnant, the official advice is that you should delay your second, until you've given birth, unless you are high risk, as described above.
Can I get the vaccine while breastfeeding?
You can, indeed. The government's advice is: 'There are no data on the safety of COVID-19 vaccines in breastfeeding or on the breastfed infant. Despite this, COVID-19 vaccines are not thought to be a risk to the breastfeeding infant, and the benefits of breast-feeding are well known.
'Because of this, the JCVI has recommended that the vaccine can be received whilst breastfeeding. This is in line with recommendations in the USA and from the World Health Organisation.'
How should we be cautious around the content we consume?
In this time of disinformation, protecting yourself from falsehoods is vital. 'Almost everything we read, unless from a very reputable source, is either wrong or transient. [But] the latter is always going to happen with COVID–we learn new things; so things change. That’s how the scientific process works,' advises Dr Grimes.
'Only trust verified sources from legitimate outlets like Public Health England, the NHS, the World Health Organisation (WHO.) We’ve all got used to physical hygiene and now, we need to practice information hygiene. Dodgy information is like a virus: if you get infected, you’ll infect other people. Scepticism is like wearing a mask. Say "I am going to step back, check it’s legit and if it’s not, step away." Think before you click the 'like' button or re-share.'
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The information in this story is accurate as of the publication date. While we are attempting to keep our content as up-to-date as possible, the situation surrounding the coronavirus pandemic continues to develop rapidly, so it's possible that some information and recommendations may have changed since publishing. For any concerns and latest advice, visit the World Health Organisation. If you're in the UK, the National Health Service can also provide useful information and support, while US users can contact the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
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