The COVID-19 vaccine fertility myth
In the winter of 2020, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, “Ava” presented via video visit for our appointment. Ava and I are similar in several ways. We are both Black women in our 30s, and neither of us have children, although I was starting to think about the possibility. As we wrapped up the appointment, she asked a seemingly routine question about the safety of the recently approved COVID-19 vaccines. I was acutely aware of my position as a trustworthy bearer of medical news, which I was afforded due to my racial congruence to the patient. I had given my response countless times and immediately launched into my spiel – the vaccine is safe, has been tested on many people and will protect you from a severe infection, hospitalization, ventilator or death.
She then asked a question that made me pause. She had heard that getting the vaccine could impact her future fertility. She worried it would be hard to get pregnant and that she would need assistance.
I did not expect this question, so it caught me off guard. I fell silent, and hesitated to respond. Several thoughts ran through my head at that moment. I had not specifically considered the implications of the vaccine on future fertility. Nor had I heard this discussed in my clinical circles or read data deterring women of childbearing age from getting the vaccine. Since the vaccines were so new, how could I definitively state that they would not impact her fertility? There was also an earned mistrust in medicine in the Black community. She and I are from a vulnerable population and she was already skeptical of the medical system. I did not want to do anything that would make her hesitate more.
My pause continued, verging on uncomfortable silence. I finally informed her of my plans for vaccination, and that there was no data that I was aware of linking them to decreased fertility. I knew right away that she could sense my hesitation. Her body language and facial expressions clearly showed that she knew I was not as confident in that recommendation as I had been when initially discussing the vaccine. It was a fleeting moment, but I knew I had squandered the opportunity to provide sound guidance that would impact her decision about the vaccine. I felt disappointment and sadness. She declined the vaccine that day and continued to decline it until several family members fell ill and she wanted to travel.
When I reflect on that encounter, I cannot help but feel as though my hesitation somehow played a role in Ava delaying the vaccine. This was a moment lost, a space that clinicians will experience throughout their careers. It does not feel good and yet there are valid reasons why we have those pauses. I know as a trusted medical professional that there are real consequences when we hesitate and I do not take the responsibility lightly.
Dr. Adetoye is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Family Medicine at the University of Michigan. She attended medical school at Michigan State University and completed a residency in Family Medicine at the University of Michigan.