Let's Put an End to These Dangerous Vaccine Myths, OK?
If you're still on Facebook, you've probably seen quite a few interesting "facts" floating around about the vaccine from some of your um, opinionated relatives. (Just me?) In addition to outlandish conspiracy theories, there are also somewhat plausible-sounding (yet still false) claims circulating, like the idea that the vaccines can alter your DNA or even affect your fertility. And of course, there's the big one: that companies rushed the vaccines and bypassed safety protocols, further fueling anti-vaccine skepticism.
There have also been legitimate warnings about the vaccine's limitations — that they aren't 100% effective or that vaccinated people could still spread the virus — which has led many to wonder, so what's even the point? As the New York Times points out, this overly cautious, negative messaging from researchers may have been well-intentioned, but it's misleading and seriously underselling the vaccine. As one vaccine expert told the Times, we should be talking about the fact the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines are "essentially 100 percent effective against serious disease," which is "ridiculously encouraging."
To help ease your fears and clear up the confusion and misinformation, here's the truth about a few popular vaccine myths circulating right now — plus what you need to know about the current "pause" on Johnson and Johnson's single-dose Covid-19 vaccine.
Myth #1: The new COVID vaccines will alter your DNA.
"This is simply not true," says Natasha Bhuyan, M.D., a family physician and infectious disease expert based in Phoenix, AZ tells InStyle. "The vaccine does not enter the nucleus of the cell [where our genetic material is kept] which means it does not affect our DNA." So, why the confusion?
While traditional vaccines use a weakened version of the virus it aims to protect against in order to trigger an immune response, the vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna use Messenger RNA technology (aka mRNA). "Basically, they are almost like an instruction manual for our cells to create the spike proteins of the novel coronavirus," she explains. This allows our immune systems to build antibodies to fight against future infection, without needing to use the live virus that causes Covid-19, the CDC explains. But it's just a temporary message — the cell breaks down and gets rid of the mRNA after it is finished using those instructions — she adds. So no, the vaccine can't damage or alter your DNA.
Myth #2: The vaccines haven't been tested long enough to be safe.
The biggest concerns most people have are about vaccine safety and potential side-effects. "That's why the most important message to drive home is that these Covid-19 vaccines are safe," Dr. Bhuyan says. "In clinical trials, there have only been minor side-effects that are short-lived. The vaccines were also tested in a diverse group of patients, including people who are elderly, those with chronic medical conditions, and people of color," she says.
Plus, even though the vaccines themselves are new, the platforms that were used to develop the vaccines have existed for a very long time, Dr. Bhuyan explains. "For example, we have been studying different coronaviruses for decades. This is why we were able to sequence the novel coronavirus in just a few days. And mRNA technology has been studied in many different areas, ranging from cancer research to other viruses [like Zika and the flu]," she says. "As a result, scientists are very confident in the results from the clinical trials."
And lastly, while things may have been expedited, Dr. Buhyan emphasizes that this shouldn't be cause for concern since "we did not cut any corners in the development or testing of these vaccines." Rather, "many organizations worked together to get rid of bureaucratic red tape in the face of this pandemic."
Myth #3: The vaccines won't protect against variants.
As of April 7, the CDC announced that the more easily spread mutant strain of the coronavirus first identified in the U.K. last winter is now the predominant strain in the U.S. While this sounds alarming, officials said there's strong evidence all three vaccines — Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson — offer good protection against this variant, especially against severe disease.
Recent studies show the vaccines are "not only are the vaccines effective against symptomatic and asymptomatic Covid, but they are also effective against variants," Dr. Bhuyan says.
And while some recent studies show the J&J vaccine is slightly less effective against variants, "the data shows that it's still highly effective," she says. "The issue, of course, is that a lot of people are comparing any numbers to the 95%-plus data we had initially with the mRNA vaccines. But for context, the flu vaccine is around 40 to 60% effective every year," Dr. Buhyan explains. "So to get any vaccine that has these efficacy numbers that we are seeing is a success story!"
Myth #4: It's common to experience blood clots from the COVID vaccine.
So, what do you need to know about the safety of the J&J vaccine in light of the news that the CDC and FDA have recommended that the U.S. pause its use? Six women between the ages of 18 and 48 developed a "rare and severe" blood clot after receiving the vaccine. According to the FDA, one person died, and another is in critical condition. While it's considered an extremely rare side effect, the pause is being recommended 'out of an abundance of caution' while the link can be investigated.
"We are recommending this pause while we work together to fully understand these events, and also so we can get information out to health care providers and vaccine recipients," Dr. Janet Woodcock, acting FDA commissioner, said during a briefing on April 13. The review is expected to be completed quickly, lasting "a matter of days," officials said.
Although the news is admittedly scary, it's important to keep things in perspective. "Nearly 7 million doses of the J&J vaccine have been administered and only six clotting issues have been reported. Those odds are under one in one million," says Vivek Cherian, M.D., a Baltimore-based internal medicine physician. In comparison, the odds of getting struck by lightning are much higher, with a one in 500,000 chance.
Following a ten-day review, the CDC and FDA voted to lift the pause on J&J's vaccine on Friday (April 23) — as the benefits outweigh the known risks. The vaccine will now come with an updated label that warns about the rare risk of blood clots paired with low counts of blood platelets involved in clotting.
However, there are a few key symptoms to keep in mind after receiving the vaccine, Dr. Cherian says. "In the event you experience leg pain, headache, shortness of breath, or abdominal pains, and you are within two to three weeks of having received the J&J vaccine, immediately contact your healthcare provider," he says. Other symptoms (that have been specifically linked with this specific rare blood clot identified in the reported cases) include blurry vision, loss of control over movement in part of your body, or seizures, Dr. Cherian adds.
Myth #5: The COVID vaccine will impact your fertility.
Considering fertility is such a hot-button topic, it's not exactly surprising that this myth is a huge cause of vaccine hesitancy among young women. This is why doctors like Dr. Bhuyan are making it clear there is no evidence that the vaccines impact fertility. "In fact, there were some people in the vaccine trials who became pregnant," Dr. Bhuyan adds. That's why many fertility specialists and ob-gyns are now actively working to dispel misinformation that falsely connects the vaccine and infertility.
And, while those who are pregnant have been left hanging in terms of specific and concrete vaccine guidance (the CDC, FDA, and American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists all say that they should be free to make their own informed decisions regarding COVID vaccination), according to a CDC report, over 30,000 pregnant women have been vaccinated against COVID-19 in the U.S. and no safety concerns have been identified.
"It's important to note that having a Covid infection in pregnancy is dangerous itself. And there is emerging research that people who are pregnant who get vaccinated pass on beneficial antibodies to the fetus," Dr. Bhuyan adds.
The bottom line:
At the end of the day, if you're uncertain about whether you should get the vaccine or not, Dr. Buhyan recommends reaching out to your own primary care doc who can put your fears to rest. "These are the types of questions I hear from my patients every day and I want to engage in an honest conversation with them," she says. "It's OK to have legitimate questions about the vaccines, we want to hear them!"