Managing misinformation

Doctors can keep abreast of online misinformation campaigns to help dispel them, researcher says

COVID-19 vaccine misinformation led to a nearly 35,000% jump in Google searches about infertility.


Google searches related to infertility and coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccines increased by 34,900% after a pair of physicians submitted a petition questioning the safety and efficacy data of the COVID-19 Pfizer vaccine. Referencing the petition, anti-vaccine activists circulated claims that misconstrued the information regarding the possibility that the vaccine could impact fertility in women.

The inaccurately represented information spread rapidly on social media channels, potentially influencing public perception and decision-making among pregnant patients or those seeking to become pregnant, according to research published in the Journal of Osteopathic Medicine. This happened despite the fact that the European Medicines Agency (EMA) and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued emergency use authorization for the vaccine, deeming the concerns in the petition insignificant.

“Misinformation is a significant threat to health care today and a main driver of vaccine hesitancy,” said Nicholas Sajjadi, OMS III, one of the study’s authors. “We’re seeing well-intentioned research and concerns taken out of context to stoke fear and anxiety about vaccination.”

The making of a misinformation campaign

On Dec. 1, 2020, Drs. Wolfgang Wodarg and Michael Yeadon petitioned to withhold emergency use authorization of the BNT162b2 mRNA vaccine for COVID-19 manufactured by BioNTech and Pfizer. The petitioners raised unfounded concerns that female infertility could arise from vaccine-induced antibodies. However, they acknowledged within the petition that there is no evidence of female infertility risks associated with COVID-19 vaccines.

Anti-vaccine advocates seized on this concern to create a misinformation claim misrepresenting the EMA petition, and the public turned to Google to understand if the information was legitimate. At peak interest, the Google search terms “infertility,” “infertility AND vaccine,” and “infertility AND COVID vaccine” experienced increases of 119.9%, 11,251%, and 34,900%, respectively, when compared with forecasted values.

“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,” said 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.”

Support for COVID-19 vaccination during pregnancy

On July 30, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine recommended that all pregnant individuals take the COVID-19 vaccine. The groups cited increased evidence of the vaccines’ safety and the higher number of U.S. COVID cases in a joint statement.

“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,” said Sajjadi. “In the battle to fight misinformation, Google Trends can be an effective tool to help physicians recognize and proactively address false claims with patients.”

Related Reading:

AOA statement regarding vaccine misinformation and hoaxes

Misinformation: A public health crisis DOs can address

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