‘I don’t trust it, even though the rest of my family have had it,’ says Billie, 31, a PR consultant who lives in London
Billie Gianfrancesco would love to have children but — as she’s single and successive lockdowns have made it hard to meet anyone — she’s worried time is not on her side.
Social media reports that the Covid-19 vaccine could affect female fertility have fanned her anxiety, leading her to turn down the jab when it was offered.
‘I don’t trust it, even though the rest of my family have had it,’ says Billie, 31, a PR consultant who lives in London.
So far she has resisted pleas to get vaccinated from her younger sister, who is a mental health social worker, and her mother, who has advised her not to believe ‘fake news’ about the jab.
Billie says she knows coronavirus is serious and sympathises with those who’ve lost loved ones, but adds: ‘I personally don’t know anyone who’s had more than mild flu symptoms from it.
‘But I do know someone my age who developed a blood clot not long after having the AstraZeneca vaccine in March,’ adding that it took doctors eight weeks to work out it may have been connected to the vaccine.
‘Now we’re hearing in the news it could affect women’s periods — and who knows how that might affect our fertility in the future? I’m not prepared to risk it.’
She is referring to the recent report from the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) that it had received nearly 4,000 accounts from women in the UK who said they’d experienced changes to their period after the jab.
The reports — 2,734 were from women who’d been given the AstraZeneca vaccine, 1,158 related to the Pfizer jab and 66 to the Moderna vaccine — came via the MHRA’s Yellow Card Scheme, set up to help monitor the safety of all drugs.
A variety of changes were noted, the most common being heavier bleeding.
The Department of Health says there’s no evidence of an increased risk of menstrual disorders owing to the Covid-19 vaccination, as the number of reports is extremely low compared to the number of women of childbearing age in the UK who’ve been vaccinated (an estimated 4.5 million have had their double dose).
Yet this doesn’t appear to carry much weight with Billie or others like her — with women aged 18 to 34 having emerged as the group most likely to refuse the jab, with many citing fertility as their main concern — according to a survey of 55,000 Britons by market researchers Find Out Now in December 2020.
And now the latest figures showing that the number of first doses given is dropping, halving in a fortnight as younger people decline the vaccine.
These include Olivia Massey, 22, an estate agent from Flintshire.
Olivia, who has irregular periods and doesn’t want to ‘make it worse’, first became concerned after reading a report online last December claiming the vaccine might affect fertility.
Social media reports that the Covid-19 vaccine could affect female fertility have fanned her anxiety, leading her to turn down the jab when it was offered
Despite ‘um-ing and ah-ing’ when she received her vaccination invitation in April (younger people in Wales were invited earlier than in England), she finally decided against it, despite being encouraged to get the jab by her already-vaccinated parents and older friends.
‘My friends already have children so they don’t need to worry,’ she says. ‘I’ve read a couple of things online about women having period problems after having the vaccines and, although that’s not scientific proof, it’s not a risk I want to take.’
One of the more egregious fake vaccine stories emerged last November with claims the ‘head of Pfizer research’ had called the Pfizer vaccine ‘female sterilisation’.
It transpired he hadn’t said this and, while he is a lockdown sceptic, he hadn’t worked for the company for nearly a decade.
But anti-vaxxer groups have picked up on such stories, gaining hundreds of thousands of views on social media.
Yet as Dr Viki Male, a reproductive immunologist at Imperial College London, points out: ‘We don’t have enough information to know if these menstrual changes are linked to the vaccine and not another factor. What we do know is that there is no evidence it affects fertility,’ she says, citing three separate findings.
The first is that some women who took part accidentally became pregnant after receiving either the vaccine or the placebo.
The pregnancy rate was equal across vaccinated and unvaccinated groups, ‘which tells us that the vaccine does not stop people getting pregnant’, says Dr Male.
Secondly, three studies involving IVF patients, some of whom had the vaccine, some of whom had Covid, while others had neither, showed ‘again, there was no difference in pregnancy rates between those who had the vaccine and those who hadn’t’, says Dr Male.
And, lastly, the U.S. equivalent of the Yellow Card system received reports of 4,804 pregnancies by the end of March in women who’d had the vaccine (but who’d not been involved in trials).
‘That tells you that a lot of women are becoming pregnant and this is likely to be an underestimate of the true number, because these are only the people self-reporting to the tracking system.’
It’s thought the online rumours stem from the fact that all vaccines program the body to produce a protein called Spike. This imitates a viral protein, triggering the body to produce antibodies.
Spike is thought to be similar to a protein called syncytin-1 used by the body to make the placenta, so some anti-vaxxers claim this means the vaccine could prompt the body to attack the placenta, as if it were a virally-infected cell.
But Dr Male says this is not true as viral and placental proteins are not similar enough to confuse the body — ‘and laboratory studies have confirmed this is the case,’ she says.
‘If antibodies against Spike did cause problems for the placenta, we would expect to see miscarriages in those who become infec-ted with Covid-19 and we don’t see this.’
While changes in the menstrual cycle may well be an unrecognised side-effect of the Covid-19 jab, it’s by no means unusual for a vaccine to have such an effect.
A study in 2018 from Johns Hopkins University in the U.S. analysed hormone levels after the flu vaccine and showed that some of the 100 participants had a reduction in levels of progesterone (which helps prepare the womb for potential pregnancy) which could affect the menstrual cycle.
Another study, involving 3,000 teenage girls in Japan, found some reported heavier or irregular periods after being vaccinated against HPV, reported the journal Papillo-mavirus Research in 2018.
Both studies show that although vaccines may well affect menstrual cycles, the effect is temporary, says Dr Male. ‘From what we already know about vaccines, any effects tend to be seen within ten to 28 days of having the jab, so it’s unlikely a woman who is fertile a month after the vaccine would not be five years later.’
Dr Male adds that the reports to the MHRA about irregular periods may simply be coincidence, stress, or due to Covid itself disrupting menstrual cycles.
‘We also know that factors such as putting on or losing weight can affect your periods, which is why it’s so difficult to say whether the vaccine is definitely causing this. But we are confident that the vaccine does not affect fertility.’
Dr Pat O’Brien, vice-president of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, adds: ‘In every clinic I do, I see at least two or three women who have had regular periods who suddenly find they’ve become heavier or irregular. So it could be coincidental.
‘However, there’s no plausible scientific mechanism by which the vaccine could impair fertility, and no evidence that it does.’
Both Billie and Olivia say they may well have the vaccine in future years. As Olivia explains: ‘I may well do it when I’m older. But I don’t want to risk it until I’ve had my family.’
Billie says: ‘I’m not going to say ‘I’ll never have it’. But I’d like to wait until the full medical trials are over in 2023.’
The turns of phrase with a science link. This week: Music to my ears.
Generally used to describe something that you want to hear, the music that you listen to may actually be only what you understand as music, and only to your ears.
A 2019 study among the Tsimané people of the Bolivian Amazon found when a group was asked to sing back a simple melody consisting of just two notes, they sang it at a different pitch and with a third note in between.
The researchers, from a number of U.S. institutions, also asked a group of Americans, who were familiar with Western music, to sing back the same melody, which they did at the same pitch.
The study, which was published in the journal Current Biology, suggests that the Western musical features that we use to understand sound — such as octaves — may be ‘culturally contingent’.