A steady bombardment of coronavirus misinformation during the pandemic has left nearly one-third of American women who are pregnant or who plan to become pregnant believing at least one falsehood about coronavirus vaccinations and pregnancy, according to a new study. A higher share were unsure whether to believe the myths.
The research, conducted in May by the Kaiser Family Foundation, considered three widespread false statements about the vaccines and concluded that about 6 in 10 US adults, as well as 7 in 10 women who are pregnant or planning to become pregnant, either believed or were unsure about at least one of the false statements.
The study’s findings were published last week and based on polling of more than 1,500 American adults, including 900 women, in English and Spanish. More than 600 women ages 18-49 participated. Its conclusions were in line with other experts’ expectations.
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“Pregnancy is a time where a lot of women are seeking information on a variety of pregnancy-related topics, but many pregnancy forums are filled with misinformation,” said Tara Kirk Sell, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, who was not involved in the study. She said she had done similar online searches before her first pregnancy.
The misinformation is so pervasive that it has even sown doubts in segments of the population that generally believe in the coronavirus vaccines’ safety for adults, including Democratic voters and people who have been fully vaccinated. Fewer than half of these survey respondents in those groups told Kaiser’s pollsters that they were “very confident” that immunisation was safe for pregnant women, despite long-running campaigns by health officials across the country to reassure the population that they are.
The three false statements used in the Kaiser survey were:
— “Pregnant women should not get the Covid-19 vaccine.”
— “It is unsafe for women who are breastfeeding to get a Covid-19 vaccine.”
— “The Covid-19 vaccines have been shown to cause infertility.”
“There are certain things that increase perception of risks,” Sell said. “One of these is risks to future generations. So rumours related to pregnancy are particularly gripping.
“I’ve personally seen friends and family members just say that in a situation where they are already struggling or high-risk, they don’t want to do anything that might tip the scale in a negative way.”
Health experts, including the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, recommend that pregnant women get vaccinated against the coronavirus as soon as possible, to protect both maternal and foetal health. Scientists have found that it is safe for breastfeeding women to get immunised. And there is no evidence that vaccine doses cause infertility.
Other studies show that pregnant women who develop Covid-19 face a higher risk of needing intensive care or mechanical ventilation. And despite the relative youth of pregnant women, they face a higher risk of dying.
About 30% of pregnant women in the United States remain unvaccinated, according to estimates from the CDC.
“We know pregnant individuals are at an increased risk when it comes to Covid-19, but they absolutely should not and do not have to die from it,” said Dr. Christopher Zahn, chief of clinical practice and health equity and quality at the American College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists.
Kaiser researchers found that among women who were pregnant or planning to become pregnant: 60% believed that pregnant women should not get the vaccine, or were unsure if this was true; and about the same number believed, or were unsure, whether the vaccines had been shown to cause infertility. Although only 16% said they believed the false infertility claim outright, another 44% said they were unsure if it were true.
Torrents of misinformation during the pandemic have repeatedly disrupted public health campaigns. Previous spikes in falsehoods spread doubts about vaccines, masks and the severity of the virus, and undermined best practices for controlling the spread of the coronavirus, health experts said, noting that misinformation was a key factor in vaccine hesitancy. US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy has demanded information from tech companies about the major sources of Covid-19 misinformation.
One reason misinformation about the vaccines and pregnancy may have gained so much traction, experts say, is that the earliest clinical trials of the coronavirus vaccines excluded pregnant women. The lack of trial data led the CDC and World Health Organisation to initially give different recommendations to pregnant women, although neither explicitly forbade, nor encouraged, immunising pregnant women. Other health organisations chose to wait for more safety data from later trials before making an official recommendation for pregnant women to get vaccinated.
“Unfortunately, in the interim, the information gap was filled with a lot of misinformation, particularly on social media, and that has been an uphill battle to combat,” Zahn said. “While we have made a lot of progress with uptake among pregnant individuals in the last year, there was also a lot of time lost.”
Researchers have pointed for years to the proliferation of anti-vaccine misinformation on social networks as a factor in vaccine hesitancy and in the lower rates of Covid-19 vaccine adoption in more conservative states.
“At the root of this problem is trust, or really, it’s a lack of trust,” Sell said. “Trusted doctors need to help support women in understanding the importance of vaccination against Covid as well as its safety. But when people don’t have trust in authorities, no provider to go to, or generally don’t feel like they have a place to get good information, this misinformation can fill that void.”