Can the Covid-19 vaccines cause infertility, miscarriage? Experts explain

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  • Anecdotal reports about the Covid vaccines causing infertility or miscarriages have been circulating on social media.
  • There is, however, no scientific evidence to show that there is a link, experts say.
  • The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are also proven to be safe and effective in pregnant and breastfeeding women.

Despite the evident benefits of the Covid-19 vaccines, there have been stories, mostly on social media platforms, about side effects.

One of these claims is that it can affect the fertility of both men and women.

These concerns may stem from a petition submitted by a pair of physicians questioning the safety and efficacy data of the Covid-19 Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, which anti-vaccine activists then referenced in circulated claims that the jab could impact a person's fertility.

According to the authors of a study published in the Journal of Osteopathic Medicine, these inaccurately represented information spread rapidly on social media channels and potentially influenced public perception and decision-making among those who were seeking to become pregnant.

Up to half of the UK population have reported being unsure about the vaccine’s impact on fertility, according to King's College London.  

The concerns may also stem from women claiming that their menstrual periods varied in duration or became unusually heavy or painful after receiving the shot.

As explained in an article by the BBC, there are plausible reasons why the vaccines might be having this effect, one being that it causes an increase in immune activity – which plays a role in the menstrual cycle. 

However, there have been no controlled scientific studies to date to explain the origin of any potential effect of vaccination on menstruation, notes GAVI, the Vaccine Alliance.

While the UK’s Yellow Card reporting system is capturing reactions and side effects from the Covid-19 vaccines, no causal association between the two has so far been established. 

Still, even if a link between the vaccines and a temporary change in menstrual cycles is eventually shown, this does not have any implications for getting pregnant, the article adds.

Two experts from SA also told Health24 that such claims about the vaccines causing infertility are unfounded. 

'No evidence or plausible biological reason'

Professor Wolfgang Preiser, Head of the Division of Medical Virology at Stellenbosch University, explained: “Neither has this been observed in any of the many clinical trials nor in actual use (hundreds of millions of people worldwide have been vaccinated so far), and there is no biological reason why it should be the case.” 

Professor Thomas Scriba, deputy director of immunology and laboratory director at the South African Tuberculosis Vaccine Initiative, University of Cape Town, supported the above points, saying: “There is no evidence, nor any plausible medical or biological reason, why Covid-19 vaccines would affect fertility in females or males. 

“The early clinical trials of Covid-19 vaccine typically did not include pregnant women and those who were trying to fall pregnant.

"Therefore, evidence on safety in these groups was not available,” but this has since changed, he said.

Dr Soumya Swaminathan, Chief Scientist at the World Health Organization (WHO) also said that the claim that vaccines could affect fertility is a “common myth”.

She explained: “There is absolutely no scientific evidence or truth behind this concern that vaccines somehow interfere with fertility, either in men or in women, because what vaccines do is stimulate an immune response against that particular protein or antigen of that virus or bacteria ... So there is no way in which they could interfere with the functioning of the reproductive organs in either men or women. People can rest assured that these vaccines in no way interfere with fertility.”

What about miscarriage?

There isn’t evidence to support anecdotal reports that the vaccines induce miscarriages in women who receive the vaccine, said Preiser.

He added: “Millions of people around the world are being followed and any significant undesired effects of the vaccines are being reported and investigated.” 

Is it safe for pregnant women and their unborn babies?

Scriba said there is now growing evidence that Covid vaccination is safe and, in fact, beneficial for pregnant women and their unborn babies. 

“Pregnancy can make women more susceptible to certain infections and diseases and the protection provided by vaccines against Covid-19 disease is likely even more important than it is for non-pregnant individuals,” he said.

Scriba explained that protective antibodies generated by the mother are also transferred to the baby during the last trimester of pregnancy and after birth, via breastfeeding.  

Preiser also stressed that being pregnant and contracting the virus puts both the mother and baby at risk for severe illness from Covid, so if you are planning pregnancy (and if you are currently pregnant), vaccination is highly recommended. 

Research findings encouraging

Updated fact sheets published in June 2021 by the Western Cape health department states that information regarding the safety of the vaccines is becoming increasingly available and shows no concerns. “You can have the vaccine at any stage of your pregnancy. Covid-19 can be serious during pregnancy especially in older women, or those with pre-existing hypertension, diabetes or obesity.”

Recent studies about Covid vaccination and pregnancy and breastfeeding are also reassuring about the safety of the jabs. 

A study, undertaken by scientists at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and published in the New England Journal of Medicine in April, involved more than 35 000 people aged 16 to 54 years who were pregnant when they received either the Pfizer or Moderna Covid vaccine, Health24 reported. The findings indicated that there were no increased risks of severe side effects or adverse pregnancy outcomes.

Safe for breastfeeding women

Another study, also evaluating the safety and efficacy of the Pfizer vaccine, found that vaccinated breastfeeding mothers passed on Covid-19 antibodies to their babies.  

Swaminathan explained that none of the currently available Covid vaccines contains the live virus, and so there’s no risk of transmission to the breastmilk.

“In fact, the antibodies that a mother has, can go through the breastmilk to the baby and may serve to protect the baby a little bit, but there’s absolutely no harm; it’s very safe,” she said.

*For more Covid-19 research, science, and news, click here. You can also sign up for our Daily Dose newsletter here.

READ | Covid-19 vaccine myths debunked: Get the facts here

READ | Sahpra’s Covid-19 vaccine approval process: ‘The safety of the public takes precedence’

READ | App allows users to report adverse effects from medicines, including Covid-19 vaccines

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