Rumors and misinformation about the COVID-19 vaccines have been spread since they were first approved for emergency use. One of the most popular topics used to push doubt about COVID vaccines is that they harm fertility and sexual function. This is simply not true. To date, there has been no study that has linked any of the COVID vaccines with problems related to pregnancy, menstrual cycles, erectile performance, or sperm quality.
Health officials and scientists alike have tried to ease concerns about vaccine misinformation since they first began to circulate on social media. By using data from numerous different clinical trials that examined hundreds of millions of vaccinations, misinformation about the “harmful” effects of vaccines has been debunked.
That said, there is one area of misinformation about vaccines that has held strong: that the COVID-19 vaccines harm fertility and sexual function in men and women. To better understand why these claims are false, each specific claim needs to be broken down. Below is a series of misconceptions and myths about the COVID-19 vaccines that can be debunked using studies of vaccinated people and those who have had the disease.
Do the COVID Vaccines Harm Pregnancies?
In early August of 2021, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) updated its vaccination recommendations for people who are pregnant or breastfeeding. The new guidance urged anyone who was either pregnant or breastfeeding to get vaccinated against COVID-19. According to the new guidance, “pregnant people and recently pregnant people are at an increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19 when compared to non-pregnant people.”
The United Kingdom’s Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) also urged pregnant or breastfeeding individuals to get vaccinated. The organization concluded in early September that “there is no pattern … to suggest that any of the COVID-19 vaccines used in the UK increase the risk of congenital anomalies or birth complications. Pregnant women have reported similar suspected reactions to the vaccines as people who are not pregnant.”
Several other health officials have spoken out about the importance of pregnant or breastfeeding individuals getting vaccinated.
Tara Shirazian, an associate professor and a gynecologist at NYU Langone Health says, “If infected with the virus, pregnant people are at highly increased risk for severe disease and complications from COVID-19, compared with their same-age counterparts.”
When someone becomes pregnant, their immune experiences changes due to the developing fetus. This unique immune response makes infection of COVID-19 about five times more likely, according to Jane Frederick, reproductive endocrinology and fertility specialist and medical director of HRC Fertility in California. “You get infected more quickly, and pregnant women can go downhill fast,” she adds.
Getting vaccinated before conceiving is always recommended, but the vaccines are still safe across all three trimesters of pregnancy. Currently, the best way for pregnant individuals to protect themselves against the potential harm from COVID-19 infection is to be vaccinated
No Evidence Shows Vaccines Harm Fertility in Men or Women
Another common piece of misinformation surrounding the COVID vaccines is that they harm fertility. The origin of this myth may stem from a letter written by a former Pfizer employee that was sent to the European Medicines Agency (EMA) in December of 2020. The letter asked the pharmaceutical company to suspend all vaccine studies currently underway. They claimed that the antibodies created by COVID-19 vaccines could also attack a human protein needed for embryo implantation.
These claims were false. A study published in June 2021 compared the success of transferring embryos to women who carried antibodies to COVID-19 after vaccination or infection to success rates among those without antibodies. The study found that the presence of antibodies did not appear to affect such rates during 171 transfer attempts.
A team of immunologists from the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, Faculty of Clinical Medicine, at the University of KwaZulu examined these claims further. In an article in the New York Times, the lead authors described their recent study. They showed that the sequences of amino acids that make up the implantation-related protein and those that make up the virus spike protein are not similar and that spike-targeting antibodies do not cross-react with the implantation protein.
Numerous other studies have examined this relationship, all of which concluded that there is no relationship between
Are COVID Vaccines Causing Menstrual Cycle Problems?
Along the same lines, another popular myth about the COVID-19 vaccines is that they may negatively impact the menstrual cycle. This has its roots in the fact that some vaccinated individuals have reported disruptions to their monthly cycle. While this is can occur, the perpetrator is not the vaccine, it’s stress.
The reason these claims are false is that there is no part of the vaccine that could cause any menstrual cycle disruptions. Experts across the board agree that a likely cause for menstrual cycle abnormalities is stress.
“Getting a new vaccine is itself stressful,” Shirazian says, “and many kinds of stressors can throw off a menstrual cycle. The physiological effects of these tensions might disrupt pathways that drive menstrual timing.”
Thankfully, stress is transient, and the majority of individuals who reported abnormal menstrual cycles say their symptoms were short-lived. In August of 2021, the EMA released a report that said no cause-and-effect association had been established between complaints of menstrual disruptions and COVID-19 vaccination. Similarly, the MHRA said that they had found no link between abnormal menstrual cycles and COVID vaccines.
That said, there is strong evidence to support the contrary. Recent studies have shown that COVID-19 could affect the menstrual cycle.
COVID-19 May Harm Menstrual Cycle, Not Vaccines
There is growing evidence that supports a relationship between COVID-19 and problems with the menstrual cycle. Becoming ill with COVID is associated with pulmonary embolisms that block blood flow to the lungs, for instance. Using this evidence, many studies have aimed to determine whether this clotting could extend to the reproductive tract.
A small study of 177 patients with COVID-19 found that 28% experienced menstrual cycle disruptions. Those disruptions included things like less bleeding and a longer cycle.
Infectious diseases such as COVID-19 cause large amounts of stress on the body. That, coupled with many known side effects of the virus, are enough to cause abnormalities in the menstrual cycle.
“It’s 100 percent worse to have COVID if you had to choose between the two,” Shirazian says.
Long-Term COVID Could Cause Erectile Disfunction
A more recent allegation aimed at the COVID-19 vaccines is their “harmful effects” on sperm or erectile function. Much like other common myths about the vaccines, the cause of lower sperm count and erectile disfunction is caused by long-term COVID, not the vaccines.
Ranjith Ramasamy is perhaps one of the leading experts on this subject and has set out to debunk these claims. Ramasamy is the Director of Reproductive Urology at the University of Maimi and has published several studies examining COVID-19 in penile and testicular tissue and its effects on erectile dysfunction. Throughout these studies, Ramasamy and his colleges also examined the potential effects of vaccines in these areas and found no correlation between the two.
One of the most obvious findings, according to Ramasamy, was how COVID-19 interferes with erections. “COVID affects the blood vessels that supply organs, and the penis is not much different from other organs that require a lot of blood,” he says. Since COVID-19 can affect blood flow, Ramasamy says it could very likely be the cause of erectile disfunction
What came as a surprise to Ramasamy and his colleagues was how long after infection symptoms of ED could occur. In one of the teams’ studies, they found that SARS-CoV-2 was present in penile tissue up to nine months after infection.
Ramasamy and his colleagues have found no significant changes in sperm counts and other fertility measures after vaccination. “One of the biggest myths with the vaccine was that it could affect fertility,” he says, “and finding no negative effect on sperm counts was very reassuring.”
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