A worried reader's e-mail launched this addition to the Star Tribune Editorial Board's "Our Best Shot" series addressing COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy.
A much-loved uncle resides in a rural Minnesota nursing home, the reader messaged. While almost all residents there have been immunized, only 70% of staff have gotten the shot. For maximum protection against the virus, everyone in the facility should be vaccinated. Yet the holdouts aren't budging. They're mainly young women who have heard the vaccine will make them infertile.
This misperception is indeed among the most stubborn and harmful rumors circulating about COVID-19 vaccines. Not only does this misinformation leave unvaccinated women at greater risk of this potentially life-threatening infection, the reader's e-mail illustrates how the broader community's health can be jeopardized. The vaccines are remarkably effective, but breakthrough infections can still occur — an alarming reality for the elderly and those with underlying health issues.
Questions about the COVID vaccine are best fielded by medical experts. For trustworthy information about fertility concerns, we enlisted Dr. Sarah Cross, medical director of M Health Fairview's The Birthplace, and an assistant professor of obstetrics, gynecology and women's health at the University of Minnesota Medical School.
Cross noted that fertility misinformation has historically swirled around other vaccines, particularly when they're introduced. But there's no scientific evidence that immunizations negatively affect a woman's ability to conceive or carry a child. "The data just isn't there for any of these vaccines, and it's not here for the COVID vaccine," Cross said.
More details from the interview with Cross, which is available below and on YouTube at bit.ly/3vKfTha, should further bolster confidence. Although the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are the first to employ mRNA technology, this new delivery platform has been under scientific scrutiny for well over a decade, with "no evidence from either in animal or human studies that it affects fertility," Cross said.
Additionally, while pregnant women were excluded from COVID vaccine clinical trials, some participants became pregnant. There was no difference in the pregnancy rate between those who got the shots vs. the placebo, Cross said.
Reports that some women have begun to menstruate soon after getting vaccinated also have prompted concerns. Correlation doesn't equal causation, so it's not clear if the vaccines were the trigger. But Cross noted that many factors can interfere with menstrual cycles, and some women may be more sensitive than others. Regardless, "Disregulating the menstrual cycle for one cycle is not going affect someone's long-term fertility," Cross said.
The misinformation around vaccines and fertility likely stems from speculation by a retired British scientist with other unorthodox views about COVID's risks. His concern was that the vaccine could prime women's bodies to mistakenly attack a placenta for some duration of time.
This notion was rooted in perceived similarities between proteins needed for placenta formation and the "spike" proteins on the COVID virus. Experts examining this, however, concluded that the proteins are not similar enough for this to happen.
Respected women's health organizations continue to recommend the vaccine for women. "We also assure patients that there is no evidence that the vaccine can lead to loss of fertility," said a joint statement from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the American Society for Reproductive Medicine and the Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine.
Cross also dismissed notions that vaccinated individuals can cause infertility or menstruation in nearby unvaccinated women. It's the virus that is contagious, not the vaccine.
Pregnant women are more at risk of developing severe COVID, a reason why those who want to have a child should protect themselves now from this virus, Cross said. Another reason: Young children also can't be vaccinated yet, making it important for moms to get immunized. "If you have little kids, especially kids under the vaccine age, it's the best thing you can do to help prevent them from getting sick," she said.
Have a suggestion for another Our Best Shot editorial? Send your idea to firstname.lastname@example.org and put "Our Best Shot" in the subject line.
ABOUT THIS SERIES
The faster we vaccinate, the faster the COVID-19 pandemic ends. But the speed with which the shots were developed has led to understandable questions. The Editorial Board's #OurBestShot series enlists Minnesota health and community leaders to deliver timely, trustworthy answers.
Here's a collection of articles, videos and other resources presented so far, with more planned:
Editorial: The big risk is in not getting vaccinated (March 28).
Video: Dr. Greg Poland of the Mayo Clinic discusses the potential side effects of the vaccines, and explains why the risks and impacts are low.
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Editorial: Communities of color face unique vaccination fears (April 4).
Video: M Health Fairview, in a conversation with leaders of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities in the Twin Cities, addresses questions and concerns about the vaccines.
Frequently asked questions: A report from the Sahan Journal, a trusted St. Paul-based source of news and information for migrant and immigrant communities, provides and wealth of vaccine information while also dispelling rumors that the shots contain pork or other products not considered halal.
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Editorial: Needle phobia? There's help available to deal with fear (April 11).
Video: A fear of needles "shouldn't be something people feel embarrassed about." A conversation with Dr. Andrew Slattengren, a veteran medical provider and president of the Minnesota Academy of Family Physicians,
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Editorial: Young and healthy? That's no excuse for skipping vaccination (April 19).
Video: A conversation with Dr. George Morris of St. Cloud-based CentraCare on misperceptions about two stubborn misperceptions that lead to COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy.
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Editorial: Cost is not a reason to avoid getting a COVID shot (April 25).
The Star Tribune Editorial Board operates independently of the newsroom and is not involved in setting newsroom policies or in reporting or editing articles in other sections of the newspaper or StarTribune.com.