We can lament how misinformation can affect the health-care decisions of millions of people, but that won’t solve the problem. What we can do instead is fight bad information with good information.
Consider the baseless claim that the coronavirus vaccines could cause female infertility.
“It’s crazy how pervasive and how common this myth is,” Eve Feinberg, an OB-GYN and former president of the Society for Reproductive Endocrinology and Infertility, told me. Feinberg noted that the infertility myth is particularly hard to debunk because it’s hard to disprove a negative — just because something scary hasn’t yet happened, people reason, doesn’t mean that it won’t.
That can make it particularly hard to change minds. One way is to explain where myths like that originated. In this case, in December 2020, a British scientist who has made unfounded and controversial comments on the pandemic and the coronavirus vaccines petitioned Europe’s medicine regulatory agency claiming that the spike protein of the coronavirus — the part targeted by the vaccine — was disturbingly similar to syncytin-1, a protein that’s part of the human placenta. Since the placenta is crucial in pregnancy, it was alleged, vaccination would cause women to produce antibodies that not only fight the virus but also cause miscarriage and infertility.
The contention has no basis in science or reality. Paul A. Offit, a pediatrician and director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Pennsylvania, explained in an op-ed that while the spike protein and syncytin-1 may share some amino acid sequences, they are otherwise very different. “To say that these two proteins are disturbingly similar would be the equivalent of saying that two people share the same social security number because both contain the number six,” Offit wrote.
But anti-vaccine activists have seized upon the false claim, and by January a survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 13 percent of unvaccinated people believe or are unsure that “covid-19 vaccines have been shown to cause infertility.” By April, 42 percent of younger adults 18 to 29 had heard this. Reports abound of misinformation campaigns spreading the claim.
The assertion is simply untrue. In fact, “getting covid is what causes harm, including preterm birth, stillbirth, being very sick during pregnancy, and, in some cases, even the mom dying,” said D’Angela Pitts, an obstetrician from the Henry Ford Health System. “The vaccine helps to protect against that.”
Pitts told me that she explains to her patients that women have become pregnant during the vaccine clinical trials, and that vaccines have been proved safe in pregnancy. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has tracked more than 35,000 pregnant women who received coronavirus vaccines, and there was no increase in miscarriage or adverse outcomes for these women or their babies.
Pitts, who specializes in maternal and fetal medicine, also advises patients who are trying to become pregnant. She explains to them that she is a millennial woman who doesn’t have children yet, but wants them one day. Getting inoculated is important for women planning to conceive, because “you want to do everything you can to be healthy. The vaccine will build up your immune system to protect you and your future baby.” As an African American doctor, she tells her patients that she understands the distrust some may have in medical institutions, and she explains why she had no concerns about getting vaccinated herself.
Feinberg uses this personal approach, too. She tells patients and concerned parents at her children’s school that her 15-year-old and twin 12-year-olds are vaccinated and that she is “not one bit worried” about the infertility claim.
This, to me, is the critical point. We need to meet our patients where they are, and be clear about why we can speak so confidently about the vaccines. No, doctors cannot definitively say that there will never be long-term consequences from a coronavirus vaccine, but we can underscore that there is no scientific reason to fear them either, given our decades of experience with myriad other immunizations.
While any long-term risk from vaccination is purely hypothetical, the risk from covid-19 is very real and present. With the rise of more contagious variants such as delta, those unvaccinated will be increasingly faced with two choices: get vaccinated or contract a disease that has already killed more than 600,000 Americans and caused lasting health consequences for many more.
In the end, the argument is overwhelming. We just have to keep making it.