A Teen Wants to Get the COVID-19 Vaccine, But Her Mom Won’t Let Her

Ask Dr. Jen

Hi Dr. Gunter! I’m a 16 year old and I was hoping you could answer a question for me about the covid vaccine. I really want to get it, but my mom is hesitant because she is worried about potential harm to my fertility. She is not an anti-vaxxer, covid-denier, or anti-masker. She even got the vaccine. She’d just worried that there hasn’t been enough testing on women who received the vaccine, conceived after the vaccine, and then had a healthy pregnancy and baby. I still want the vaccine though, so do you have any advice on how I can convince her? Thanks!!

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Dear Friend from Instagram,

I suspect your mom isn’t alone in her concerns, so I am really glad you asked this question.  

The best place to start with debunking is with facts and the experts. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) currently recommends the COVID-19 vaccine for everyone ages 12 and up, so that is most definitely you. Here is the latest from the CDC.

Experts have looked into concerns about the COVID-19 vaccine and infertility/pregnancy. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), the American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM), and the Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine (SMFM)—meaning the experts on infertility and pregnancy—all say there “is no evidence that the vaccine can lead to loss of fertility.” If needed, you can even show your mom their joint statement on the COVID-19 vaccines here and this study in The New England Journal of Medicine, which tells us vaccinating against COVID-19 in pregnancy isn’t associated with an increase in bad outcomes. 

I would explain that the hypothesis about the COVID-19 mRNA vaccines affecting fertility is faulty, and no one who makes this claim has offered any proof. For science to consider whether an idea has merit it has to make sense biologically, and there is nothing in any COVID-19 vaccine that could affect fertility. To impact fertility, a vaccine would have to either damage the parts of the brain involved with ovulation, damage the ovaries themselves, damage the endometrium (lining of the uterus), or damage the immune system. If it did, we’d know that by now. There is no evidence from animal or human studies that this happens. Also, there is no ingredient in the vaccine that could have this effect. The mRNA in the vaccines only codes for the spike protein on COVID-19, nothing else. Your body reads the mRNA, makes the proteins, you make antibodies because your body recognizes these proteins as foreign, your body destroys the spike proteins, and you are left with antibodies that can attack COVID-19 and will protect you when you are exposed down the road. The mRNA in the vaccine is destroyed by your body within days, and it cannot change your DNA. There is simply no mechanism for infertility.

Consider mentioning a specific piece of disinformation about the vaccine and the placenta, because your mom may have heard it. This myth originated with anti-vaccine forces and suggests the spike protein on the surface of COVID-19 is similar to a protein in the placenta called syncytin-1. The claim (without any proof), is that the antibodies generated against COVID-19 from the vaccine could attack syncytin-1 in the placenta, leading to miscarriages and pregnancy complications. This is not possible as the spike protein and syncytin-1 are different sizes and they only share 3% of the same amino acids (building blocks), so your immune system will most definitely not confuse the two. That would be like you confusing an elephant for a frog! I might show your mom this excellent video by Rob Swanda, who is an RNA scientist. He explains with some simple white board graphics how the immune system cannot confuse syncytin-1 with the spike protein on COVID-19. Also, there is a good fact-check on the myth by Reuters, here.

Your mom may also have heard about the reports of menstrual irregularities. We don’t know if this is a true vaccine side effect or not. However, if it is a true vaccine side effect it is just a sign the immune system is working. As the endometrium (lining of the uterus) is part of the immune system, it makes sense that there could be a temporary disruption. You can show your mom this article I wrote on the subject. Just like fever after a vaccine won’t make you permanently hot and just a sign of the immune response, some irregular bleeding after the vaccine is not a sign of a permanent effect on the uterus. 

I would follow up by explaining the illusory truth effect, basically acknowledging how hard it can be to get information that is correct because we all mistake repetition for accuracy (that’s how propaganda works!). This is why every one of us is vulnerable to these kinds of myths. When we make decisions, one of our strongest urges is if something feels familiar. The number of social media posts falsely linking the COVID-19 vaccine with fertility makes this concept feel familiar, even for people who are otherwise pretty steeped in science, like your mom. Even being exposed to one piece of fake news can have an effect! The fertility myth is especially sticky as fears about fertility are a common anti-vaccine talking point. So your mom, like almost everyone else, has probably previously heard something about vaccines and fertility. Anti-vaccine forces have tried to link the tetanus vaccine as well as the HPV (human papillomavirus) vaccine with infertility, but there is ample data showing these vaccines are safe and have no impact on fertility. So when this new COVID-19 fertility myth popped up, it felt familiar to your mom just like it did to millions of other people.

Then I would explain that teens getting vaccinated is important to protect their own health as well as the health of others. While it is less common, teens can still get very sick with covid. I just read this tragic story of Dykota Morgan, a 15 year old girl with no other health conditions, who died from covid. In addition, teens with covid, even if they aren’t sick, can pass the virus to others. Consider this case from the CDC, where a thirteen year old girl transmitted covid to 11 people in her family at a family reunion and one person became very ill. Be clear that you don’t want to be that person and potentially infect someone unknowingly. What if they became very sick or died? That would be an awful burden for you to live with for the rest of your life.  

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If your mom is a vocal feminist, I would also tell her that using fertility fears as a weapon is actually purity culture, because it reduces a woman or girl’s worth and health to the functioning of her ovaries. That is why the anti vaccine forces use it, because purity culture is sadly still primal and it’s everywhere. If your mom isn’t a super out there feminist, I might not go there. Your call.

I know your mom is just trying to do what she thinks is best, and given the amount of misinformation and disinformation online, the fact that we have had almost 18 months of uncertainty and panic, and the tenacity of these myths, it is easy to see how people retreat to a position they feel is neutral—not having the vaccine—because that feels the safest. But if your mom believes in the science of masks and the science of vaccines, then hopefully you can dispel some of her fears and show her that science says the vaccine is safe for you. 

Yours in science,

Dr. Jen 

And a reminder for subscribers, The Doge is the Sunday forum on all things menopause. Tomorrow’s topic is influencers and the spread of misinformation and disinformation online.