Anti-vaxxers are targeting pregnant women with misinformation that can lead to tragedy, experts warn

·7 min read
A pregnant mother receives the COVID-19 vaccine at a maternity clinic in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on Aug. 24, 2021.
A pregnant mother receives the COVID-19 vaccine at a maternity clinic in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on Aug. 24, 2021. (Photo by Ajith Perera/Xinhua via Getty Images)
  • A battle is being waged for the hearts and minds of pregnant women to get vaccinated.

  • Pro-vaccine campaigners have been called "baby killers."

  • COVID-19 can be dangerous for pregnant people and their babies, data shows.

  • See more stories on Insider's business page.

Testimonies of deaths from COVID-19 after not having a vaccine are becoming more common - but no less heartbreaking.

One of the latest - and most painful - stories come from Northern Ireland, in the UK, where the newborn child of a mother who died from COVID was baptized at her mother's funeral.

Samantha Willis, a 35-year-old mother of three other children, died after choosing to wait for more information about the COVID-19 vaccine and pregnancy. Data now shows that the inoculation is completely safe to have whilst pregnant: but a dedicated misinformation campaign is trying to make people believe otherwise.

Samantha Willis' husband Josh is now speaking out about the importance of getting a COVID-19 vaccine: "I can't advise people to take it but I'm telling her story so they can make up their own mind," he told the Derry Journal, last week.

"I've heard stories since the weekend that people have made up their minds after hearing her story, I'm sure those thousands of people who got vaccinated on Saturday and Sunday, some of them saw my Facebook post on the Friday night and the news breaking and that was enough to tip them over the edge to go and get it."

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'A lack of information was being filled with misinformation'

There is now a battle being waged for the hearts and minds of pregnant women to get vaccinated. Anti-vaxxer conspiracy theorists claim COVID-19 vaccines are dangerous to unborn babies and pregnant mothers. Attempts to explain this misinformation can trigger a torrent of abuse.

Pregnant then Screwed, a UK organization that works to ensure that the employment rights of mothers are not damaged by them taking maternity leave, began sharing data on COVID-19, vaccines, and pregnancy.

"The hate started before Christmas when we were campaigning for breastfeeding women to be able to have informed choice about taking the vaccine," Joeli Brearley, founder, and CEO of Pregnant Then Screwed, told Insider.

"Breastfeeding and pregnancy is a really sensitive topic anyway, and if you talk about that online, it can often go really horribly wrong. Then you add in talking about a vaccine that people didn't fully understand at this point - and it got really scary for our team."

Rage-filled anti-vaxx posters on the Pregnant then Screwed social media platforms repeatedly called the staff "baby killers" and accused them of wanting to poison pregnant women.

"But we didn't stop it as we still felt very strongly that it was important," said Brearley.

The non-profit is now collaborating with the UK's independent fact-checking organization, Full Fact. They have set up a WhatsApp helpline to ask questions about the COVID-19 vaccine and pregnancy and receive impartial, evidence-based responses.

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The UK's Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation formally approved the vaccines for pregnant women in the UK in April 2021, but Brearly says that the information has been "flimsy from the outset."

"Because there was so little information, a lack of information was being filled with misinformation."

Some people genuinely believe that the vaccine will kill fetuses, Brearly said. "Like many conspiracy theories regarding the COVID-19 vaccine, there is no data to back it up."

But the anti-vaxx rhetoric is believed by many. A study by King's College London and Ipsos Mori showed that 7% believe that the COVID-19 vaccine could cause infertility, and 5% believe it will. Moreover, despite evidence that it won't, 48% say they do not know if it could.

This has turned a widespread vaccine hesitancy among those having babies. Only 24.5% of pregnant people in the USA have received a vaccine, according to the CDC.

Meanwhile, COVID-19 can be dangerous for pregnant people and their babies. Data warns that contracting COVID-19 makes preterm births 40% more likely, time in ICU 14 times more likely - and death 15 times as likely.

Despite evidence showing that COVID is more dangerous for pregnant people than vaccines, the anti-vaxx messaging has been so successful due to the ready-made concerns that come with pregnancy.

Professor of Social Psychology Karen Douglas at the University of Kent, told Insider: "The anti-vaxx movement capitalizes on normal worries that people have, be they during pregnancy."

Dr. Daniel Allington, Senior Lecturer in Social and Cultural Artificial Intelligence at King's College London has been studying the distrust of the COVID-19 vaccine and told Insider that 20% of 35 to 44-year-olds think it's not safe to have the vaccine whilst pregnant, compared to 26% of 25 to 34-year-olds and 28% of 18 to 24-year-olds.

"One of the things we found is that the younger somebody is, the more likely they are to be getting their information from social media. And the less likely they are to be getting their information from TV, radio, and newspapers, including online.

"Using social media to get your information has a negative effect, as it's not fact-checked and it's not regulated, meaning misinformation can circulate easily."

What we know about COVID-19 vaccines and pregnancy

The COVID-19 vaccines do not contain any living organisms that can multiply in the body, so they cannot infect, damage, or kill an unborn baby in the womb, according to the NHS and the CDC.

Further to this, studies show that the COVID-19 vaccines do not harm egg function, fertility, or the success of IVF.

Recent Yellow Card data - the UK scheme that records side effects to medications, including vaccinations - shows no evidence that the COVID-19 vaccines used in the UK increase the risk of miscarriages or stillbirths.

Reports collected from approximately 55,000 pregnant women who have had their vaccine show no pattern of an increased rate of miscarriage. Unfortunately, according to the NHS, miscarriages are common, with 20-25% of pregnancies in the UK ending in this way.

The UK research is backed by six global studies that show that COVID-19 vaccines are safe for pregnant people, the Royal College of Gynecology reports. But the anti-vaxxers continue to roam the internet and social media, seeking to convince people otherwise.

Dr. Victoria Male, lecturer in Reproductive Immunology at Imperial College London, said: "There's a certain extent to which some people feel that they have a right to control other people's bodies when they're pregnant. It's a bit paternalistic - even misogynistic."

Kyndal Nipper an unvaccinated women from Columbus, Georgia, was 36 weeks pregnant when both she and her husband tested positive for COVID-19.

She suffered minor illness, including low-grade fever and allergy-like symptoms, but noticed her unborn baby was moving less than usual in the days after her COVID symptoms first appeared, reported Newsweek.

"So I went...straight to labor and delivery, and that's where we found out that, unfortunately, our baby boy was no longer with us," she told WJTV.

Now she is living with profound regrets about not getting the vaccine before becoming infected and is urging pregnant women to avoid the tragedy she suffered and get the vaccine.

"What's important for me is that no other mother has to go through this pain," Nipper said.

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