By Nissa Shaffi, NCL Associate Director of Health Policy
In the last few weeks, I’ve noticed an old friend from high school, a mother of an infant, consistently posting anti-vaccine content to her social media. Her posts, which were initially mere reflections, have transformed into full-on conspiracy theories about the safety of the COVID-19 vaccines and cast doubts about to the speed of their approval.
At first, I bypassed these posts, not wanting to create tension with an old friend. However, as they became more inflammatory, I realized that she was essentially spreading falsehoods about vaccines. As a public health advocate, I decided to reach out and offer my perspective. I assured my friend that vaccines have gone through rigorous testing and approval by multiple regulatory bodies in order to be deemed safe for widespread use.
She argued that she went through her entire pregnancy without being vaccinated and that she felt mask-wearing and proper hygiene would offer sufficient protection, ending her thoughts with, “maybe I’m crazy, because I think with this big push, that maybe there’s something else in it that the public doesn’t know about.” While my friend may need more and better information to convince her of the benefits of getting vaccinated, it’s important to know what the science says about vaccine safety for expectant or new mothers.
Per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance, vaccines are an extremely safe and effective method of avoiding communicable diseases. Certain vaccines for pregnant people not only help the mother stay healthy, but the antibodies developed in response to the vaccine penetrate the placenta and offer protection to the unborn child as well. If you are pregnant or planning on becoming pregnant, the specific vaccines you should receive depend on your age, lifestyle, medical conditions, and other factors. You should consult your doctor for the most up to date information.
The CDC recommends that pregnant women receive two vaccines during the gestational period, the inactivated flu (injection) vaccine, and the tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis or Tdap vaccine. Vaccines that are not recommended during pregnancy include the nasal influenza vaccine, the human papillomavirus (HPV), measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR), and Varicella (chickenpox) vaccines. Some travel vaccines, such as yellow fever, typhoid fever, and Japanese encephalitis are not recommended during pregnancy, but can be administered based on a health provider’s advice.
Vaccines also offer immense protections via lactation. With exception to live virus vaccines like smallpox and yellow fever, most vaccines provide safety to new moms and babies during pregnancy and postpartum via lactation. There is also evidence that breastfed babies respond better to routine pediatric immunizations than those on formula. The CDC has provided a chart of vaccines that are safe for use in lactation.
An even more convincing case for maternal vaccines are the protections offered against COVID-19. Data shows that pregnant people are more vulnerable to severe illness with COVID-19. COVID-19 complications during pregnancy include hospitalization, intensive care, or the use of a ventilator or special equipment to breathe, or illness that results in death. Additionally, pregnant people with COVID-19 are at increased risk of adverse pregnancy outcomes, such as preterm birth.
The CDC has found the COVID-19 vaccine to be safe for pregnant and lactating people. The CDC and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have safety monitoring systems in place to gather data regarding adverse reactions to vaccines. Currently, neither the mRNA (Pfizer and Moderna) nor the viral vector (Johnson & Johnson) COVID-19 vaccines have demonstrated adverse outcomes and have been deemed safe for use in pregnant populations. While more data are needed to assess potential adverse reactions in pregnant individuals before or early in pregnancy, the agencies have vowed to closely monitor that information.
Expectant and new mothers are often faced with a host of difficult decisions about their own health and the health of their babies. Adding to the uncertainty brought on by COVID-19, it’s understandable that people are apprehensive. Through compassionate and non-judgmental conversations, we can help encourage vaccine confidence. Even though my friend seems adamant in her stance, I still see an opportunity to turn the tide. There are so many great resources to help address these concerns, like these ones by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the American Academy of Family Physicians. It’s up to everyday immunization advocates like you and me to quell concerns related to vaccine safety to ensure our friends and loved ones are safe.