CHICAGO, Ill. — Google searches looking for links between the COVID-19 vaccine and claims it makes women infertile have skyrocketed thanks to a misinformation campaign online, a new study finds. Researchers with the American Osteopathic Association say anti-vaccine activists misconstrued the concerns of two doctors, leading to an astonishing 35,000-percent increase in Google searches about infertility and the COVID vaccine.
“Misinformation is a significant threat to healthcare today and a main driver of vaccine hesitancy,” says researcher Nicholas Sajjadi, a third-year osteopathic medical student at Oklahoma State University College of Osteopathic Medicine, in a media release. “We’re seeing well-intentioned research and concerns taken out of context to stoke fear and anxiety about vaccination.”
Study authors say all this started after a pair of physicians submitted a petition questioning the safety and effectiveness of Pfizer’s vaccine. Doctors Wolfgang Wodarg and Michael Yeadon tried to stop the emergency use authorization for the vaccine from BioNTech and Pfizer in December 2020. In their petition, they expressed their concerns that women could have trouble conceiving a child after taking the vaccine. It’s important to note, however, that both physicians admitted in their petition that they had no evidence to support their concerns.
Misinformation running amok on social media
Using the petition as proof, the study finds anti-vaccine activists mispresented the doctors’ claims on social media. The team believes this influenced many people still waiting to get the COVID vaccine, including pregnant women and those wanting to become pregnant.
The misinformation campaign spread rapidly, even after both the European Medicines Agency and U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued the emergency use authorization. Both groups noted that the actual concerns of the petition were not strong enough to warrant delaying the vaccine rollout.
Thanks to these infertility claims however, Google searches for “infertility” jumped by 119.9 percent. Searches for “infertility AND vaccine” skyrocketed by 11,251 percent and searches for “infertility AND COVID vaccine” exploded by a staggering 34,900 percent.
Vaccine recipients are doing their homework
If there is a silver lining in all of this, researchers say it’s that people are clearly doing their own research to either prove or disprove the wild claims they’re hearing about the COVID-19 vaccines.
“I’m disappointed this misinformation occurred, but I am pleased to see spikes in searches because it reflects genuine interest and suggests that people are doing their research and trying to make informed decisions,” says J. Martin Beal, DO, an OB-GYN with Tulsa OB-GYN Associates.
“What I’d like to emphasize to patients is that your doctor would love to have this conversation with you to help clarify any questions or concerns you may have. Additionally, I highly encourage getting vaccinated—it will protect you and the baby.”
Currently, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends that pregnant women who are eligible to get the COVID vaccine do so. To this point, just under 50 percent of the U.S. population has been fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
“Dispelling misinformation and informing patients about the risks and benefits of COVID-19 vaccination, or other misrepresented claims, can save lives and slow the spread of disease,” Sajjadi concludes. “In the battle to fight misinformation, Google Trends can be an effective tool to help physicians recognize and proactively address false claims with patients.”
The study appears in the Journal of Osteopathic Medicine.