The myth allows false reports to pop up surrounding the COVID-19 vaccine. Here, what you need to know about infertility and rolling up your sleeve.

By Emily J. Shiffer
December 18, 2020
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On December 11, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) authorized the first COVID-19 vaccine from Pfizer-BioNTech, and this week, the group stated it supports the authorization of a second COVID-19 vaccine from Moderna.

The news brought with it a sense of relief, representing a beacon of hope amidst a pandemic that has already taken over 300,000 U.S. lives. But it also resurfaced myths regarding vaccinations.

Specifically? In recent weeks, there have been false claims that the COVID-19 vaccine causes infertility.

Myths about vaccines have long been discredited by medical professionals, but we asked fertility doctors and OB-GYNs to debunk them—once and for all!—explain how vaccine-infertility myths even started, especially related to the COVID-19 vaccine, and discuss what you really need to know about both rolling up your sleeve and seeking evidence-based answers regarding infertility.

Where the Vaccines-Infertility Myth Originated

It's difficult to pin down a specific event, but many health professionals believe the vaccine-infertility myth can be linked way back to a 1998 study in the medical journal The Lancet that falsely associated the MMR vaccine—which protects against measles, mumps, and rubella—with autism. In 2010, the paper was retracted by both the co-authors and the journal and the association between vaccines and autism has been disproven over and over again.

Then in 2018, a very poorly-designed study published in an obscure toxicology journal, the Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health, also claimed that the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine could cause infertility in women.

"The journal later retracted this study due to concerns about its scientific validity," explains Tarun Jain, M.D., a reproductive endocrinologist at Northwestern Medicine in Chicago. "Some damage had been done, however."

Case in point: Despite follow-up studies—including one at the University of Wisconsin that found no evidence of increased infertility among women who received the HPV vaccine—false information continued to spread, in large because of social media.

And that's what's going on now. With the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, misinformation has been spread via various posts including an image that claims the vaccine is "female sterilization" due to its perceived impact on a protein called syncytin-1 that helps with placenta formation. The claim proposes that because the syncytin-1 protein is similar to the spike protein of SARS-CoV-2, the antibodies produced would attack the placenta.

However, this claim has been refuted and claimed as false by doctors, researchers, and others in the medical community. "It has been incorrectly suggested that COVID-19 vaccines will cause infertility because of a shared amino acid sequence in the spike protein of SARS-CoV-2 and a placental protein," Pfizer spokeswoman Jerica Pitts said in an email to the Associated Press.

Credit: Getty Images

What You Need to Know About Vaccines and Infertility

When they are confronted by patients with any concerns, doctors rely on scientific research to reassure their patients that vaccines do not cause infertility.

"I explain the following two points: One, there is no credible evidence that shows a link between vaccines and infertility, and two, there is no plausible mechanism of action that would link vaccines with infertility," says Dr. Jain, who adds that when it comes to the COVID-19 vaccine, "so far, no credible scientist is concerned about an impact on fertility."

Laura Detti, M.D., chair of the department of subspecialty care for women's health at the Cleveland Clinic's OB-GYN and Women's Health Institute adds: "Research so far has not found any major adverse effect or immediate adverse effect. It makes no sense that there would be any fertility effect of this vaccine."

The process for FDA vaccine approval is also rigorous, she explains. Specifically for the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, the approval was confirmed after an analysis of 36,523 participants who received either the vaccine or placebo, finding the vaccine was 95 percent effective.

If you are truly worried about infertility? If you're under 35 and have been trying for over a year, or over 35 and have been trying for six months with no luck, see a reproductive endocrinologist who can run tests, take a full medical history, and help make a plan.

Dr. Detti says it's important to focus on true potential causes of infertility, which can range from everything from pelvic inflammatory disease to endometriosis. "Causes of infertility span across different endocrine functions to actual gynecological functions in the fallopian tubes and uterus," she explains.

For up-to-date information about the COVID-19 vaccine, visit the FDA's website.

The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is approved for people 16 and older, while Moderna is asking the FDA to approve its vaccine for those 18 and over.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends that the vaccine should not be withheld from pregnant women "who meet criteria for vaccination" and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is leaving the decision up to women themselves.

"As the vaccine becomes available, women interested in the vaccine should discuss their options with their health care provider," says Dr. Detti.

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