Among the many things the pandemic has taught us? When it comes to COVID-19 and how best to protect one’s self from the coronavirus, there is often a great deal of confusion and misinformation.
Such is the case with the vaccines developed to combat the virus: some of the worrisome claims making news lately suggest they could possibly cause problems with a woman’s reproductive health or interfere with her ability to conceive. Resource editors spoke with Larry Scott Spiegelman, M.D., an obstetrician and gynecologist with Baptist Health, who helped separate fact from fiction on this important topic.
Resource: Is there any data to support the idea that COVID-19 vaccines – whether it’s Moderna, Pfizer or Johnson & Johnson – may cause infertility?
Dr. Spiegelman: No, actually there have been quite a few studies on infertility in both men and women. Some of them looked at sperm counts in men before and after being vaccinated, and they found absolutely no change. And to date nobody has shown any signs of infertility as a result of the vaccine up to 42 days after receiving a full dose.
In other studies with all three vaccines, there were some women who had incidental pregnancies while participating in the studies, meaning their pregnancy was unrelated to either the vaccine or the study. These patients were followed closely and none of them showed an increased risk for any pregnancy complications or birth defects. As far as infertility, the fact that they were able to get pregnant while participating in these studies suggests that there were no issues there.
Resource: Do these vaccines interact at all with any of a woman’s reproductive organs?
Dr. Spiegelman: By way of explanation, the COVID-19 vaccine is delivered in the arm muscle and, for the mRNA vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna, that is where the mRNA is received at the cellular level. The cells of the muscle absorb the mRNA without it ever entering the nucleus or affecting the DNA of your cells. It delivers a message to your cells, telling them to make a specific protein – the spike protein – which helps the coronavirus infect people. Your cells then create antibodies to help fight off the COVID-19 virus should you be exposed to it.
Now, to answer your original question: because these vaccines are absorbed in the area where they’re given, they never actually reach the reproductive organs in any appreciable amount that could be affecting or binding to the cells in those organs.
Resource: Should women who are trying to conceive be hesitant about getting the vaccine? What about women who are pregnant or might be pregnant?
Dr. Spiegelman: As far as women who are trying to get pregnant or who are currently pregnant, the American College of OB-GYN together with the Society for Maternal Fetal Medicine recently issued updated recommendations as of July 30th advising that women should not delay pregnancy if they’re currently getting the vaccine. Understanding that the risks are extremely small to any developing fetus, the two organizations say that the vaccine can be received safely in any trimester. Moreover, the American College of OB-GYN strongly encourages all women to get the vaccine now, whether they’re planning to get pregnant or not. Bottom line: if you want to have a baby there’s no need to delay pregnancy, even if you’ve received the vaccine.
Resource: Can the COVID-19 vaccine affect fertility in men?
Dr. Spiegelman: In males, there’s no evidence for infertility related to the vaccine. There have been several studies that compared men’s sperm counts both before and after receiving the COVID-19 vaccine, and no significant changes were noted. Furthermore, there has been no increase in miscarriage rates or birth defects in those pregnancies in which the male partner had received the vaccine.
Resource: What about the virus itself – does COVID-19 affect pregnancy or fertility?
Dr. Spiegelman: In terms of the effects of the coronavirus itself, there are several things we know. First, pregnant women who get infected with the virus get much sicker than women who aren’t pregnant. Second, studies show that women who are vaccinated not only make good antibodies for themselves but also pass those antibodies on to their baby through the umbilical cord, protecting the baby against COVID-19 once it’s born. Third, if a mom breastfeeds her baby, she continues to pass those antibodies on to her baby.
What this tells us is that, by getting vaccinated, women who are pregnant or are considering pregnancy can protect their own health and that of their baby. Unfortunately, according to the CDC, just slightly more than half of all U.S. women eligible to receive the vaccine have actually been vaccinated to date, which means that there are many women out there who are depriving themselves of the ability to stay healthy during their pregnancy.
This is surprising to me, as women spend so much time getting prenatal care, visiting their doctors and preparing for childbirth – yet somehow some have disassociated COVID-19 from their normal prenatal care. To not receive the vaccine during your pregnancy is to put both you and your baby at higher risk. If you get very sick from COVID-19, the lack of oxygen you’re getting is also affecting your baby. The potential risks to your baby are much higher if you get sick with COVID than they would be from the vaccine itself.
Resource: Is there anything else women or men should know about the vaccine and their reproductive health?
Dr. Spiegelman: My biggest concern is that, by refusing to get the vaccine or not taking the vaccine, many women are putting themselves and their babies at significant risk.
With the coronavirus surging yet again through South Florida and the entire country – especially the Delta variant, which is extremely concerning – getting vaccinated is more important than ever. The Delta variant is far more contagious, it causes younger people to be ill, and causes them to be sicker. During the original surge of COVID-19 last year, one person could pass it to one other person, more or less. But with the Delta variant, studies show that one person can pass it to between five and ten others.
So, even if you’re not vaccinated – for whatever reason you feel is important – you’re exposed to many other people who could potentially be passing the virus to you. And you, in turn, could be passing the virus on to your own family and friends. Please don’t risk it – your health and the health of your baby is extremely important.