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Epidemiology Outpatient Practice

Is It Dangerous To Vaccinate Pregnant Women And Children Against COVID?

Last fall, I was hiking and birdwatching in a nature preserve in coastal North Carolina. A woman walked by talking on her cell phone loudly enough for me to overhear her conversation 50 feet away. She spoke about her outrage that children were being vaccinated against COVID and that her internet research from the Children’s Health Defense organization indicated to her that COVID was a hoax propagated by Bill Gates and that COVID vaccines cause autism. I rolled my eyes, kept my mouth shut, and went back to watching egrets.

It reminded me of another conversation that I had with one of our family medicine physicians about 15 years ago. It was October and she was pregnant. I had arranged an influenza vaccination station in the hospital physician lounge and told her about it so that she could get vaccinated. She said that she wasn’t going to get a flu shot because she believed that flu shots in pregnant women cause autism in their children. I tried to convince her otherwise but she was firm in her beliefs. That winter, when she delivered her baby, she had active influenza. Her newborn ended up in the neonatal ICU at Nationwide Children’s Hospital with an intracranial hemorrhage.

The lesson is that misinformation abounds, even among intelligent and educated people. The main defense against misinformation is scientific research. In the short-run, misinformation can persist but in the long-run, science eventually prevails. Beliefs such as the sun revolves around the earth, the earth is flat, and smoking cigarettes is beneficial to your health were all held as incontrovertible truths in the past but eventually were dispelled by science to all except the most gullible. This week, two new scientific studies were published that will help to dispel misinformation about COVID vaccines and children.

The first was a study in JAMA that looked at all newborns in Sweden and Norway between June 2021 and January 2023; in total, 196,470 infants. 48% of the infants were born of mothers who were vaccinated against COVID during pregnancy and 52% were born of unvaccinated mothers. The results are striking. The babies born from unvaccinated mothers were twice as likely to have intracranial hemorrhage compared to babies born from mothers who were vaccinated during pregnancy. In addition, compared to babies whose mothers got vaccinated, the babies of unvaccinated mothers were twice as likely to die and 50% more likely to have hypoxic encephalopathy. The benefits of maternal vaccination did not stop there. Newborns of unvaccinated mothers were also more likely to have anemia, bleeding, thombosis, lower birth weight, septicemia, seizures, heart failure, feeding problems, and necrotizing enterocolitis. This was a study that involved a huge number of subjects and made all the stronger because all children born in the two countries for a year and a half were included in the analysis.

The second study was also published in JAMA and looked at 2,959 children between ages 5-17 at 6 U.S. study sites in Texas, Arizona, Oregon, Michigan, Utah, and Washington. 25% of the children received a bivalent COVID vaccine and 75% were not vaccinated with a bivalent COVID vaccine. The results were not surprising – the unvaccinated children were more likely to get both asymptomatic COVID infections and symptomatic COVID infections compared to the vaccinated children.

These two studies will not convince all anti-vaxxers but they will hopefully loosen the hold of misinformation on some of them. For some people, beliefs are just too hard to break – there are still those among us who believe that there are bands of bigfoot roaming rural Ohio, stealing chickens and throwing rocks at passing cars. Similarly, like the woman at the North Carolina nature preserve, there are those who are ardent believers of Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. (the founder of the Children’s Health Defense organization) who publicly stated about COVID vaccines: “It is criminal medical malpractice to give a child one of these vaccines”. In 1887, Abraham Lincoln famously said “You can fool all of the people some of time; you can fool some of the people all of the time, but you can’t fool all the people all the time.” Kennedy has made millions of dollars for himself by fooling some of the people all of the time.

But physicians can now tell their pregnant patients with confidence that getting a COVID vaccination will improve their chances of having a healthy baby and improve the chances that their baby will live through its first month after birth. COVID vaccines do not provide 100% protection against the infection. But then neither do kevlar vests provide 100% protection in a mass shooting. However, wearing a kevlar vest will improve your chances of surviving and improve your chances of avoiding major injury. COVID vaccines are like wearing a kevlar vest against the virus for pregnant women and for children.

February 7, 2024

By James Allen, MD

I am a Professor Emeritus of Internal Medicine at the Ohio State University and former Medical Director of Ohio State University East Hospital