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Military Health System

Debunking Anti-Vaccine Myths with Scientific Facts

Image of A soldier gets a shot in the arm. A Norwegian soldier administers a COVID-19 vaccine to U.S. soldier at Ayn Al Asad Air Base, Iraq, on June 4, 2021. Norwegian Soldiers volunteered to administer COVID-19 vaccinations to U.S. soldiers, coalition forces, and civilian contractors. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Clara Soria-Hernandez)

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Even after months of vaccinations, and nearly one million service members have received a vaccine, myths and misinformation surrounding the COVID-19 vaccines still abound.

However, the science behind the vaccines, and the effectiveness of those vaccines remain.

Some of the reasons why military personnel say they are not getting vaccinated include:

  • Skepticism about the effects of the COVID-19 disease on young, healthy service members
  • Questions about the vaccine’s possible long-term side effects that could emerge years later
  • Changing information about the COVID-19 vaccines and the virus itself
  • Concerns about a baby’s health in a pregnant service member
  • Fears among male service members about their future fertility

Many of these concerns stem from false, inaccurate, or misleading information gathered from social media and misinformation super-spreaders.

Fact: The belief that young people cannot become seriously ill from catching the coronavirus is false. And newer, anecdotal reports suggest the virus’s Delta variant is causing more serious illness in young people compared to versions of the virus that were spreading last year.

The Truth About Side Effects

Fact: Even the young and healthy can still become infected and be a vector for spreading the virus, so everyone should get vaccinated to protect others, if not just themselves.

Fact: While there have been some rare but serious side effects detected after vaccinations – including an inflammation of the heart muscle and a neurological condition called Guillen-Barre syndrome, most of these cases recover. The Food and Drug Administration has months of data on the vaccines. That is from the more than 165 million people who are fully vaccinated in the U.S.

Fact: The messenger RNA vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna are based on a safe vaccine platform for which data go back to the 1990’s, and the Johnson & Johnson Janssen vaccine also is based on tried-and-true technology.

Fact: FDA is moving forward on full approval for COVID-19 vaccines, which may allay fears about long-term side effects. Pfizer submitted the vaccine for full approval July 16 for those ages 16 and older, according to the FDA. Moderna said it could apply for full approval before year-end.

On July 22, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) recommended that the Johnson & Johnson Janssen vaccine’s safety and effectiveness benefits still outweigh its rare risks for Guillen-Barre syndrome, and other side effects.

All three vaccines have rare adverse events including myocarditis/pericarditis, an inflammation of the heart. However, the ACIP decided that currently, the benefits still significantly outweigh the risks for COVID-19.

A soldier is tested for COVID-19
An Army soldier with Task Force Warrior receives a PCR test for COVID-19 in Bataraja, Indonesia, on July 28, 2021. Garuda Shield is a joint-exercise with the purpose of enhancing and enriching the jungle warfare ability of both the U.S. Army and Indonesian Army while mitigating COVID-19 risk through vaccination, testing, and quarantine procedures. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Rachel Christensen)

Fertility Questions

“The questions have changed over time, but the infertility issues remain” on the minds of pregnant service members at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, said Dr. Y. Sammy Choi, chief of the Department of Research at Womack Army Medical Center.

The science, however, backs the fact that there are no signs of harm to the fetus.

Fact: Of the more than 69,000 pregnant women vaccinated against COVID-19, there are no signs of harm to the fetus. In fact, babies born to vaccinated women are born with immune responses against the virus.

An April 22 study in the “New England Journal of Medicine” tracked 35,691 pregnant women. Compared to a control group of pregnant women pre-COVID, “women who had received the vaccine did not experience an increased rate of miscarriages or adverse neonatal outcomes,” the article states.

Fact: The vaccines have no known impact on fertility in men. The dangers of losing fertility are greater from actually getting COVID-19, especially among men who have circulatory issues that could result in erectile dysfunction (ED).

A study in the journal “Andrology” found that “there is preliminary evidence in a real-life population of ED dysfunction as a risk factor of developing COVID-19 and possibly occurring as a consequence of COVID-19.” The study was observational and does not prove causality, but it will lead to more research to delineate the effects of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, and male reproductive health, Choi said.

A research letter published in the “Journal of the American Medical Association” June 21 found that “sperm counts were not lowered in men receiving either of the mRNA vaccines.”

Fact: U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy said in his July 15 report on handling health misinformation: “During the COVID-19 pandemic, health misinformation has sowed confusion, reduced trust in public health measures, and hindered efforts to get Americans vaccinated.”

There are other reasons service members are citing for not getting vaccinated, Choi said. From his discussions with soldiers at Fort Bragg, these include:

  • Service members have a choice to refuse because the vaccine is not mandated as it is still under Emergency Use Authorization. That could change if and when the vaccines are fully approved.
  • Some people believe that the vaccine does not really work, otherwise the president would have mandated it. It remains unclear what the president is thinking about full vaccination mandates just yet.
  • Some believe that COVID-19 will have little effect on service members personally. This is generally true as the chance of severe disease is small, Choi said.
  • Many unvaccinated service members believe that if they got sick, there would be little societal effect. This is false because an infection can lead to mutations, as shown by the Delta variant, Choi said.
  • The vaccinated are having breakthrough cases. This is true but only in very small numbers.
  • The vaccine is not working since officials are discussing boosters. This is false. Boosters are to enhance efficacy, Choi explained, adding: “If the vaccine was not really working, we would not give boosters, but a completely different vaccine.”
  • Some experts, including PhD scientists and medical doctors, have told the public not to get the vaccine. Unfortunately, this is true, he noted
  • If things are as bad as the CDC says, why have some states reduced mask mandates instead of increasing them (a recent argument)? Unfortunately, this is also true and depends on the viewpoints of individual state leaders rather than medical experts
  • Seemingly smart elected officials, including some doctors, are providing mixed messages. This is true and happens all too often, Choi pointed out.

To counter such false reasoning, federal and state governments and the military continue to tailor their pro-vaccination messages very carefully. Already, in recent weeks there has been an uptick in Americans getting vaccinated as the number of those infected with the Delta variant increases exponentially.

Choi said “one of the appeals I am using now is that of perfection. Some are demanding the trifecta for the vaccine: 100% without serious side effects, 100% without breakthrough cases, and 100% without the need for a booster.” Choi said: “If we required that same perfection in all that we did…none of us would ever take a pill or any of the vaccines that most of us have taken or given to our children.”

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