Physician discusses impact of COVID-19, vaccines on women's health

Jul. 22—No, the COVID-19 vaccines do not cause infertility in women, nor do they cause complications during birth or increase the chances of a miscarriage.

With that, Dr. Angela Langer, an obstetrician-gynecologist physician with Freeman Health System, addressed some of the greatest concerns she fields from expectant mothers.

"There's a lot of misinformation out there ... it is untrue and unfounded," she said, during a Wednesday morning briefing addressing the vaccines and pregnancies. Vaccines, she said, have a proven safety record of eradicating the disease, and the COVID-19 vaccine should be offered to women during pregnancy and the postpartum periods as well as when breastfeeding.

One of the leading conspiracy theories making the social media rounds, she said, alleges similarities between the coronavirus's spike protein — the part of the invading virus the vaccines target — and a protein found inside the placenta called syncytin-1. The theory falsely claims that antibodies will attack syncytin-1, stopping it from performing its important role inside the placenta.

"But if you actually look at the two proteins, they are not similar at all; there's a very small portion that is similar," Langer said. "It's almost as if saying that you and I have the same Social Security number because we have the number 6. So people are putting out there that we are making antibodies against that which will cause infertility or cause miscarriage or increase rates of adverse outcomes in pregnancy. ... It's not true."


What is true, Langer said, is that pregnant women with COVID-19 are at much higher risk of hospitalization, severe disease and even being placed on a ventilator than women of the same age who are not pregnant. This is because pregnant women appear more likely to develop respiratory complications that require intensive care than women who aren't pregnant. Pregnant women with COVID-19 are also twice as likely to be intubated or require lifesaving procedures.

"Compared to non-pregnant women who have the same health and age, a COVID-infected woman is about 1.3 to 1.4 times more likely to end up in the hospital when she's pregnant," said Dr. Regan Theiler, a Mayo Clinic obstetrician, in a statement earlier this month.

To avoid such complications, Langer urges all women, especially pregnant women, to get vaccinated as soon as possible.

"We do think the COVID vaccine is safe in pregnancy," Langer said. Studies of more than 100,000 pregnant women — quite a bit of data, she added — have shown there are no "severe adverse outcomes" to women giving birth.

"There is also no risk to the baby if you get the vaccine," Langer said. A pregnant woman "can get vaccinated at any time. We encourage you to talk to your doctor or health practitioner so that you know, in your particular situation, what the right choice is for you."

Langer also debunked the rumor claiming vaccinations have caused abnormal spikes in miscarriages.

"The patients that are pregnant and vaccinated versus women who are pregnant and unvaccinated have the same rate of miscarriages," which is roughly 30% each year, she said. "So if you say, did someone who was vaccinated miscarry? Yes, that is a true statement. But would they have miscarried anyway if they weren't vaccinated? Probably so, because the rates aren't different. So we don't think there is any increased risks with vaccinations."

While changes have been seen in some vaccinated women's menstrual cycles, they have proven temporary, Langer said — "maybe a month after getting the vaccine you can either have an extra cycle or missing a cycle or something like that — but over time that looks to be resolving, and we think it has to do with the inflammatory response of the vaccine" and not a hormonal change as some conspiracy theories falsely claim.


Plenty of babies have been born at Freeman since early 2020, Langer said — the hospital averages 150 to 200 babies each month.

"We have delivered a lot of pregnant women over the last year and a half with COVID, and we've also had a lot of patients who have been vaccinated and delivered here without any incidents," she said.

As far as she knows, there hasn't been a single case of a "vertical transmission" at Freeman, which is when a mother with COVID-19 passes the virus directly to the baby — it's something Langer said "is extremely, extremely rare." While babies have become COVID-19-positive, this happened weeks after birth, after they've gone home, contracting the virus from either their mother or a family member.

While questions concerning the virus and vaccinations have increased dramatically since the vaccines became available to the public, she's always happy to educate her patients about the science behind the medicine.

"I understand why people are concerned, and I understand why people ask questions, because that's how we learn," she said. "I think this is a scary time for everyone. I think being in a global pandemic is something none of us has ever experienced; we don't know what the long-term effects of this is going to be. and then you add a new vaccine that was expedited in its creation, even though no steps were missed and it was done by the book and done in the way it was supposed to ... so of course people are going to ask questions about pregnancies and their babies."

However, "when the science and the people who do this for a living and know what they're doing say there is not risk" and that the vaccines are safe, then people should come aboard and trust the science. But that's not happened, Langer said. "The people who perpetuate and continue to post this (false) information out there — it's harmful. We spend a lot of our time just answering these types of questions."

In no other time in human history, she said, have so many people had such easy access to vast amounts of information — both good information and not-so-good information.

Ultimately, "I think you have to ask good questions, know your sources and really be able to sift through the good data versus the bad data and come up with a decision that's beneficial to you," she said.