SALT LAKE CITY — There's another elephant in the room when it comes to the COVID-19 vaccines — the question of whether or not they affect fertility.
And social media users have been quick to offer answers, oftentimes in the form of what doctors call myths.
Some have claimed the vaccine could attack a protein in the placenta with a small piece of genetic code that is the same as the spike protein of the coronavirus, or that the vaccines can affect menstrual cycles.
But national organizations like the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists have said there's no evidence those things have happened to anyone, calling loss of fertility due to the vaccine "scientifically unlikely."
As with any new vaccine, the uneasiness when it comes to such an important aspect of our health is to be expected, said Dr. Erin Clark, maternal fetal medicine specialist at University of Utah Health.
"I think it's natural for people to be wary and scared in the time of COVID … we try to be really open about what we know and don't know, but this is one of those concerns that we should lay to rest," Clark said. "But I don't minimize that it's a legitimate concern. People have legitimate questions and concerns around everything surrounding COVID."
Gov. Spencer Cox addressed the issue in a news conference on Thursday, pointing to "misinformation" circulating on social media.
"We've been talking to doctors, especially fetal medicine specialists, and they've made it clear and asked us to make it clear that vaccines do not affect fertility in any way. Women who are or may become pregnant can feel safe, but you don't have to take my word for it. I would encourage you, as always, to talk to your doctor," Cox said.
Over the past year, talking about the coronavirus and the resulting vaccines with patients has become a "big part" of her job, Clark said.
"We have been accumulating very reassuring information about the vaccine," Clark said.
No major study results have been published about how the vaccine impacts fertility.
But randomized trials and a growing body of observational data suggest that there aren't any serious safety signals for women trying to get pregnant, women who are pregnant, or women who are breastfeeding, Clark said.
Those who express fears of the vaccines' effects on fertility over social media often point to the vaccines' newness and the fact that they only have emergency use authorization. But Clark says there's no biological data to support rumors of effects on fertility. The way the vaccine works and the biologic mechanism underlying it doesn't support that something described in those social media stories could happen, she said.
We've been talking to doctors, especially fetal medicine specialists, and they've made it clear and asked us to make it clear that vaccines do not affect fertility in any way. Women who are or may become pregnant can feel safe.
–Utah Gov. Spencer Cox
One widespread rumor claims that an unvaccinated woman can be harmed from being around a vaccinated woman due to shedding of spike proteins. Such stories can be difficult to fact-check, as well as "very emotionally powerful, but they're not backed by science," Clark said.
And although the vaccines are new, years of research made them possible.
"So the technology's not as new as people think, but I think just knowing that, having heard about it relatively recently over the course of the pandemic, it's natural for people to be a little more wary and seek additional information," Clark said.
Dr. Sean Esplin, senior medical director for women's health at Intermountain Healthcare, noted that hundreds of thousands of women of reproductive age have by now taken the vaccine and been observed in studies — including many who have gotten pregnant.
"And every day we're getting more and more data about the safety of this vaccine in pregnancy and in people who are considering pregnancy. And I think the truth is, in order to have some concern, there has to be some plausible risk. And this is a great example of misinformation that gets out into the public and is accepted as fact when in reality there's no, nothing to support this statement or this concern," Esplin said.
Both he and Clark say data shows the risk of getting COVID-19 itself outweighs the risk of getting the vaccine.
Esplin urged people who are concerned to do an "unbiased" risk comparison between the options. Pregnant women face the risk of a more serious illness when they contract COVID-19, he noted.
Doctors are also seeing higher rates of preterm births among women who have had the infection, Esplin said.
When asked whether waiting until more is known about the effects of the vaccines, as some chose to do, is a good idea for those who are concerned, Esplin said, "Waiting, that's a personal decision. I think whether or not they receive the vaccine is a personal decision."
"However, that decision does affect our whole society. I mean, we're not going to be able to get over the pandemic until we have enough immunity within the community that we can stop the spread of the disease," he said.
Both doctors urged those with questions about the best decision for them to be comfortable talking to their doctor.
"Seek information with people you trust and who will be willing to sit down and have those discussions," Clark said.