New Brunswick

Concerned about COVID-19 vaccines and pregnancy? Here's what we know

Two experts in maternal-fetal health answer common questions they're hearing from women of reproductive age about COVID-19 vaccines.

Experts say there’s growing evidence the shot is safe for mom and baby

The Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada CEO says pregnant women are at higher risk of severe COVID-19 symptoms. (Dragan Grkic/Shutterstock)

They were among the first to be offered COVID-19 vaccines last winter.

But vaccination rates among nursing home workers have lagged, and as of last month, staff vaccination rates at 12 long-term care facilities in New Brunswick were still below 50 per cent, according to provincial officials.

A representative of employees at 51 of the province's 566 long-term care homes has suggested that's likely because many of their workers are women of child-bearing age, and they're worried the vaccine could hurt their unborn children or their ability to get pregnant.

Are those worries justified?

We asked two experts in maternal fetal health to weigh in.

Should I get the vaccine if I'm pregnant or want to get pregnant?

Should women of child-bearing age get the vaccine?

Tell us what you think!

Help shape the future of CBC article pages by taking a quick survey.

In a word, "Yes," said Dr. Lynn Murphy-Kaulbeck, who is based at the Moncton Hospital and is the medical director of PerinatalNB.

She's also part of CANCOVID-Preg, which tracks COVID-19 in pregnancies across the country.

"All of the data shows women who are pregnant who get COVID have an increased risk for intensive care, pre-term birth and other complications," Murphy-Kaulback said.

Dr. Lynn Murphy-Kaulbeck, medical director of PerinatalNB recommends a COVID-19 vaccine for women who are pregnant or thinking of getting pregnant. (Horizon Health)

Dr. Darine El-Chaâr agreed. She's a physician and clinician investigator at the Ottawa Hospital and an assistant professor at the University of Ottawa.

"Having taken care of some of these patients, it is very scary," El-Chaâr said. "Being intubated is not how you plan a pregnancy."

Pregnant women who get COVID-19 are four times more likely to require hospitalization than the average person, and 11 times more likely to need intensive care, she said.

According to public health authorities all over the world, the vaccines reduce those risks.

And both doctors said they've seen nothing to suggest COVID vaccines have any impact on unborn children or fertility.

But what about all those women saying the vaccine changed their periods? 

Murphy-Kaulbeck said she's seen no evidence of that, but El-Chaâr said it's very possible.

Period changes are a normal response to stress or other bodily changes, said El-Chaâr, and a vaccine could trigger that. Things generally return to normal within a couple of months.

Both doctors noted a period change does not necessarily signal any issue with fertility.

Is there any proof COVID-19 vaccines DO NOT reduce fertility?

Dr. Darine El-Chaâr says she's still getting lots of questions from women about COVID-19 vaccines. (The Ottawa Hospital Foundation)

At this point, said El-Chaâr, there is "a lot of great data."

A study done in Israel looked at ovarian follicular function, she said. And another from a European country looked at IVF outcomes.

A new study by a U.S. fertility clinic looked at people who were vaccinated, unvaccinated and previously infected with COVID, said Murphy-Kaulbeck.

None found any impact on fertility, they said.

How do you know COVID-19 vaccines won't hurt my unborn baby?

More than 150,000 women have registered with the Centers for Disease Control in the U.S., said Murphy-Kaulbeck. And nothing alarming has happened to the women who received vaccines or their babies.

Research has found the mRNA molecule is out of a person's body within about a week after getting the shot, said El-Chaâr, and does not transfer across the placenta.

There's no long-term data yet, so how can you say it's safe?

"I think people need to realize there's been many other trials — for influenza, Zika, Ebola — that have used the mRNA technology," said Murphy-Kaulbeck, dating back to 2006.

And there's nothing to show any association with infertility, she said.

Pregnant women have been getting vaccines such as flu shots for many years, said El-Chaâr, and no harm has been done to their children or "school-aged outcomes."

"These are not 'experimental vaccines,'" said Murphy-Kaulbeck. "They're based on science and they're based on data and information ... It's just been accelerated due to the pandemic."

I've read the mRNA vaccine targets a protein called Syncytin-1 needed for placenta development. That sounds bad.

A recent study tested this, said Murphy-Kaulbeck and found it to be untrue.

There was no immune cross-reaction between COVID-19 spike protein and Syncytin-1, she said.

"The immune system is able to recognize quite clearly which one is which."

El-Chaâr said as a scientist and clinician, the Syncytin-1 theory made no sense to her from the beginning.

It's a protein that doesn't exist in the body unless a person is pregnant.

"And if you're pregnant," she said, "you don't have infertility."

Murphy-Kaulbeck warned against basing medical decisions on things you read on social media. She recommended speaking with a healthcare provider or consulting the websites of the Public Health Agency of Canada or the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

"They'll give you accurate information based on the most recent research."

With files from Information Morning Saint John