After consulting Dr. Google, talk to your doctor
Google searches related to infertility and coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccines increased 34,900% after anti-vaccine activists circulated false claims about the potential for the COVID-19 vaccine to cause infertility in women.
The inaccurately represented information spread rapidly on social media channels.
This potentially influenced public perception and decision-making among pregnant patients or those seeking to become pregnant, according to research published in the Journal of Osteopathic Medicine. False information spread quickly even though the European Medicines Agency (EMA) and the US Food and Drug Administration issued emergency use authorization for the vaccine, deeming the infertility concerns unsubstantiated.
“Misinformation is a significant threat to healthcare today and a main driver of vaccine hesitancy,” said Nicholas Sajjadi, one of the study’s authors and third-year osteopathic medical student at Oklahoma State University College of Osteopathic Medicine. “We’re seeing research taken out of context to stoke fear and anxiety about vaccinations.”
The making of a misinformation campaign
On December 1, 2020, Drs. Wolfgang Wodarg and Michael Yeadon petitioned to withhold emergency use authorization of the BNT162b2 mRNA vaccine for COVID-19 manufactured by BioNTech and Pfizer. The petitioners raised unfounded concerns that female infertility could arise from vaccine-induced antibodies. However, they acknowledged within the petition that there is no evidence of female infertility risks associated with COVID-19 vaccines.
Nevertheless, anti-vaccine advocates seized on this concern to create a misinformation claim misrepresenting the EMA petition, and the public turned to Google to understand if the information was legitimate. At peak interest, the Google search terms “infertility,” “infertility AND vaccine,” and “infertility AND COVID vaccine” experienced increases of 119.9%, 11,251%, and 34,900%, respectively, when compared with forecasted values.
“I’m disappointed that this misinformation occurred, but I am pleased to see spikes in searches because it reflects a genuine interest and suggests that people are doing their research and trying to make informed decisions,” said J. Martin Beal, DO, an OB-GYN with Tulsa OB-GYN Associates. “What I’d like to emphasize to patients is that your doctor would love to have this conversation with you to help clarify any questions or concerns you may have. Additionally, I highly encourage getting vaccinated—it will protect you and the baby.”
Support for COVID-19 vaccination during pregnancy
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists states that claims linking COVID-19 vaccines to infertility are unfounded and have no scientific evidence supporting them. Furthermore, they recommend that patients who are pregnant or may consider future pregnancy have access to COVID-19 vaccines.
“Dispelling misinformation and informing patients about the risks and benefits of COVID-19 vaccination, or other misrepresented claims, can save lives and slow the spread of disease,” said Sajjadi. “In the battle to fight misinformation, Google Trends may be an effective tool to help physicians recognize and proactively address false claims with patients.”