We can all agree that nothing has fuelled the conversation around the coronavirus vaccines more than social media. To investigate exactly that, the US Women’s Health team commissioned journalist Melinda Wenner Moyer to explain how one doctor got caught up in the crossfire, the scary warnings intentionally fabricated and spread to misinform the public, and why women are nevertheless believing them.
When Michelle Rockwell, MD, checked Facebook on the morning of February 7, 2021, she saw a mysterious new comment on one of her posts. It read, “Hey, I just wanted to let you know that a post has been circulating about you.”
When Dr. Rockwell, an Oklahoma-based family physician, clicked on it, she saw that someone had made a collage of two of her Instagram posts from months earlier: one in which Rockwell was celebrating getting the COVID-19 vaccine, and another in which she was sharing the sad news of her miscarriage. Whoever made the collage had labeled the photos with dates suggesting that the miscarriage happened a few days after she’d been vaccinated—the implication being that the vaccine had caused her to lose her baby.
“I looked at it and I was just in disbelief,” Dr. Rockwell says—not least because the narrative wasn’t true. She had miscarried three weeks before she got the vaccine, which meant that the person who had created the post was “maliciously taking two different pictures and changing the dates to fit their narrative,” she says.
To make matters worse, the post had been shared by a number of accounts on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. She didn’t know how many there were, how to find them all, or where the post even originated.
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“Misinformation is spread so quickly because people don’t pause and think before hitting the share button.”
Dr. Rockwell immediately reported the posts she could find—Facebook did not take them down, saying they weren’t a violation of community guidelines—and then she individually reached out to the accounts she ID’d that shared the post, asking them to remove it. “I said, ‘Hey, this is actually false information. If you go to my Instagram and actually look at the timeline, I lost my baby before I got the vaccine, ’ ” she says. Some users apologized and took the post down, while others weren’t so accommodating. “Others were just nasty—‘How can you get that vaccine, you’re poisoning yourself, you’re going to be infertile,’ ” she recalls.
The day after Dr. Rockwell was first informed about the post, she opened up about what had happened on her own social media accounts. “How soulless and predatory of someone to take someone’s heartbreak and modify it to further their own agenda,” she wrote on Instagram on February 8. “Misinformation is spread so quickly because people don’t pause and think before hitting the share button.” Research backs Rockwell’s claim: Posts containing false information spread faster and farther on Twitter than truthful posts do, a 2018 study in the journal Science found—in part because fake news seems more novel.
If you’ve spent any time on social media over the past few months, you know scary posts about the COVID vaccines are everywhere. A great many of them stoke fears over infertility and pregnancy loss.
These posts are apparently fueled by the large and pernicious anti-vaccination movement, which for decades has sought to convince people that the government, along with doctors and scientists, do not have the public’s best interests at heart. The movement has found an easy target in the new COVID vaccines—and the understandable questions women have about it—even as a growing body of research finds that these vaccines are perfectly safe.
Stories like Dr. Rockwell’s illustrate that the scary warnings are sometimes intentionally fabricated and spread to misinform the public. Yet women are, nevertheless, believing them. In an April 2021 survey conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation, one in five Americans said they believed or were unsure whether the COVID vaccines cause infertility. Despite widespread vaccine availability, only 46 percent of Americans today are fully vaccinated, and only 16 percent of pregnant women have received at least one vaccine dose as of May 8, 2021. Experts suspect that these kinds of misguided fears are at least partly to blame—and that numbers won’t rise significantly until we find a way to successfully counter them.
Surprisingly, even vaccine-supporting women are not exempt from social media’s heavy influence.
Kavita Kumar, 37, considers herself to be an extremely science-minded person. A fourth grade teacher from Charlottesville, Virginia, who is now in her second trimester of pregnancy, Kumar describes herself as fiercely pro-vaccine, and her husband and sister are both physicians. But she was terrified by some of the social media posts she stumbled across while deciding whether to get the COVID vaccine this winter. Kumar recalls seeing posts warning that if she got the shots, her baby’s DNA would be altered and that she might have a miscarriage or stillbirth. “As a first-time mom who already has pregnancy anxiety—I’m just so nervous about it—it really got to my head,” she recalls. “I absolutely was like, I am not taking this vaccine, I don’t care what people say, I’m not going to look at the science behind it. I’m just not taking it.”
Pregnant with her first child, Jenny Bloomer, from Madison Heights, Michigan, also kept stumbling across social media posts that terrified her. “It wasn’t even, ‘The vaccine is going to do X to your baby.’ It was more shame-based, like, ‘What kind of person would choose to do this if there’s even a slight possibility that it could harm the baby?’ ” the 36-year-old software developer, who has always been a vaccine supporter, shared. She heard a tiny voice in her head whispering, What if? What if the vaccine really did hurt her baby?
Part of the pull of medical disinformation about vaccines and fertility online is rooted in the immense pressure society puts on women to protect their unborn children.
Women often assume they’re to blame if anything goes wrong with a pregnancy, says Jacqueline Parchem, MD, a maternal-fetal medicine specialist with UT Physicians and an associate professor in the department of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive sciences at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth, who treats and supports women with high-risk pregnancies.
“If I’m telling someone that their baby has a birth defect, or their cervix is dilated early, or their amniotic fluid is low, the very first question that comes out of every single patient’s mouth is, ‘Did I do this? Was it my fault?’ ” Dr. Parchem says. “Usually, the answer is no.” When Dr. Parchem was offered the vaccine in January while she was 31 weeks pregnant, even she wasn’t sure what to do.
The decision surrounding the COVID vaccine isn’t an everyday decision, either—it’s a choice that has to do with a brand-new substance into your body, so it’s no wonder pregnant women (or any other people!) aren’t necessarily sure how to feel about it. But after talking with her obstetrician friends, Dr. Parchem realised that getting the vaccine was the best thing for her and her baby—she knew that not getting the vaccine could put her and her baby at a more serious risk.
“I had to balance my logical, scientific, medical brain with the brain that you get when you’re pregnant, which questions every decision that you make,” she says.
Dr. Parchem receiving a dose of the vaccine
This fear and guilt women have about their role in a successful or unsuccessful pregnancy stems from the idea that our bodies aren’t really our own—they don’t truly belong to us, because they are used to grow and bear children. “As women, we don’t only think about ourselves, right? We think about our children, our unborn children, our future children, and so there’s a much greater weight for us to bear,” Dr. Rockwell adds.
And social networks only amplify this pressure, because every time a woman scrolls through her feed, she is bound to encounter advice and warnings she didn’t ask for. “Women are bombarded with 24/7 surround-sound ‘advice’ about what constitutes a healthy pregnancy. And oftentimes, this advice is contradictory,” says Margaret Howard, PhD, a professor of psychiatry and human behavior and medicine at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University. “It can be information overload to the point that pregnant women may feel compelled to ask themselves, ‘What am I supposed to do, wrap myself in bubble wrap for the next eight or nine months?’ ” The same goes for women who are trying to conceive: They worry about what they eat and drink, how much they exercise, what chemicals they’re exposed to—ultimately, how their lifestyle choices might shape their ability to get pregnant.
But, a reminder: The COVID-19 vaccines have been proven safe—and potentially life-saving—including for pregnant women or those looking to get pregnant.
You might be wondering why many doctors are so sure that the vaccine is safe, when it’s still so new. While it’s true that the first vaccines were only approved for emergency use just a few months ago, that’s enough time to amass some reassuring data. In late April, researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published an analysis of self-reports of more than 35,000 women who had received the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines while pregnant or right before they got pregnant.
They found that pregnant women were more likely to report feeling injection-site pain after getting the shot compared with women who weren’t pregnant, but that they were less likely to develop fevers and other side-effects. There was also no evidence that the vaccines increased their risk of miscarriage: Among the 827 women whose pregnancies had ended by the time the study finished, miscarriage rates were no higher than they have been in past years—and there was not a single newborn death. In other words, pregnancy complications “were not higher in the vaccinated group compared to the baseline levels that we know,” Dr. Parchem says.
There is also no reason to suspect that the vaccines affect fertility, despite unfounded rumors that the vaccine somehow damages women’s placentas. This idea has “been debunked thoroughly by many scientists,” Dr. Parchem notes—and plenty of women have gotten pregnant after receiving the vaccine. In fact, in the Pfizer vaccine clinical trials, a similar number of women got pregnant after receiving the vaccine as those who got pregnant after receiving the placebo shot. A joint statement published in February by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the American Society for Reproductive Medicine and the Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine noted that “no loss of fertility has been reported among trial participants or among the millions who have received the vaccines.”
It’s also important to keep in mind that not getting vaccinated poses risks. “Pregnant people get sick just like everybody else. You can end up in the ICU, you can end up intubated,” Dr. Parchem says. This is one of the reasons Dr. Parchem decided to get vaccinated: She realised that not getting the vaccine was riskier than getting it. There’s also evidence that pregnant women pass some of their protective antibodies along to their babies during pregnancy, so that their babies are born at least partially protected from COVID, Dr. Parchem says. So you’re not just protecting yourself; you’re protecting your baby too.
So what *can* women do to protect themselves from bad information? Experts have this empowering advice.
Even with this growing amount of reassuring evidence in hand, many social media accounts are still spreading misinformation and trying to scare women away from the shots. So it’s really not a bad idea to consider tamping down your social media use, Howard says. Ask yourself whether scrolling through Instagram or Facebook makes you feel better, or whether it might actually make you feel worse. If you find yourself “feeling more worried, more anxious, more fearful, after being exposed to information from various sources, then it’s time to pull back,” she says.
But protecting yourself from misinformation is not only pulling back from the platforms—it’s also about being proactive about gut-checking what you see. “You can literally Photoshop anything, and put it out there as fact,” Dr. Rockwell points out. Look closely at the credibility of the accounts sharing the information you see. Do the people behind the accounts have a medical background? If so, what kind? Do they practice obstetrics or family medicine or maternal-fetal medicine? Physicians in those fields are going to be more trustworthy than, say, podiatrists and dentists, who may not know that much about the vaccine and its effects on women, Dr. Rockwell says.
Information that comes from universities and hospitals is likely reputable, too, Dr. Parchem adds. And if you really want to know what the leaders in obstetrics think, check out the websites and social media accounts of the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology or the Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine, she says. They have published position statements on the safety of the COVID-19 vaccines in pregnancy. Women should also feel comfortable approaching their doctors and asking them questions, and getting second opinions if their doctors tell them something that they want to double check, Dr. Parchem says.
“I had to balance my logical, scientific, medical brain with the brain that you get when you’re pregnant, which questions every decision that you make.”
Report any social media posts that you come across that look questionable too. On February 8—coincidentally, the day after Dr. Rockwell discovered the posts about her miscarriage— Facebook and Instagram announced that they were going to start cracking down on posts sharing misinformation about the COVID-19 vaccine. As of late June, a Facebook spokesperson said that the company had removed more than 18 million posts sharing COVID-19 misinformation across its platforms. Posts in which people attack or shame others for choosing to get the vaccine are also being removed, the spokesperson stated. But it’s unclear just how much misinformation might get past the company’s filters, so it’s crucial that users report problematic posts when they see them.
Although Kumar was initially certain she didn’t want to get the vaccine, she did, eventually, seek additional information from more credible sources. She spoke to her sister, a family medicine physician, who strongly encouraged her to get vaccinated. “She was like, ‘Kavita, just take the vaccine. I’d be the first person to tell you not to take it if I thought it was unsafe,’ ” Kumar says. She also talked to her pregnant friends who’d gotten vaccinated and she was reassured by the pregnant woman she followed on Twitter who got the vaccine and had shared their positive experiences. “I’m definitely happy with my decision,” she says. She received her second dose in March and had mild side effects for about 12 hours—and then felt fine. Bloomer also talked to an obstetrician friend, who convinced her to get the vaccine. She received her second dose several weeks ago and is doing great.
Dr. Rockwell has also been doing better. “I’m still hurt that someone would misconstrue information like this, especially using such a painful experience to instill unnecessary fear in women,” she says. But the experience has had a net positive: It has inspired her to keep using her platform to help other women recognize and challenge misinformation. It “has only increased my desire to continue to inform and inspire my social media community,” Dr. Rockwell says, “and to empower women to make well-informed, evidence-based decisions for themselves and their families.”
This article was originally published on womenshealthmag.com.
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