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Picture: GETTY IMAGES/KB MPOFU
Picture: GETTY IMAGES/KB MPOFU

The health department has come out in support of medical organisations in their criticism of the Commission for Gender Equality for making spurious claims about the potential danger of Covid-19 vaccination for women’s health.

The commission — a  body established in terms of chapter nine of the constitution to protect and promote gender equality —  expressed its views at a time when SA is battling to increase the vaccination rate in the adult population, which now stands at about 46%.

In its statement last week the commission referred to a new study published in Obstetrics & Gynaecology medical journal that found that vaccines may cause a small change to women’s menstrual cycle length, but that this change is temporary. The change did not relate to the days of bleeding but to a slightly longer time between bleeding. The commission said many women might not be comfortable about being vaccinated due to the possible long-term effects on their reproductive health. The wish of these women to delay getting vaccinated should be respected, the commission said.

The department responded saying that the constitutional right to freedom of expression should be exercised responsibly.

“It is of concern that the statement released by the Commission for Gender Equality on menstrual irregularities associated with Covid-19 vaccines appears to have been done without consultation with any of expert institutions,” the department said.

It said the commission's statement had not considered all available evidence and the substantial benefit associated with vaccinating women of reproductive age and pregnant women.

“Covid-19 vaccines are highly effective against severe illness, and immunising women of reproductive age is important as both SA and global data have clearly shown that Sars-CoV-2 infection in pregnancy significantly worsens obstetric and neonatal outcomes, making it imperative that vaccination programmes target young women before and during pregnancy.

“It is also important to emphasise that, the current discussions about vaccine mandate have no bearing on the effectiveness and efficacy of Covid-19 vaccines, and we dismiss any argument against the constitutionally of vaccine mandate based on fallacious and non-scientific evidence,” the department said.    

“The conclusion by the commission that ‘many women may not be comfortable taking vaccines, due to possible long-term effects’ is not supported by data and is not based on a risk benefit analysis. Furthermore, the Commission for Gender Equality’s statement may contribute to misinformation and needless vaccine hesitancy in young women, and at its worst, could contribute to maternal and neonatal deaths.”

The department said the health minister Joe Phaahla was advised by committees of highly qualified scientists and clinicians.

In a statement on Sunday, a range of medical organisations, which include the SA Medical Research Council, SA Medical Association, SA Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, SA Paediatrics Association, SA Private Practitioners Forum, Progressive Health Forum, the president of the Nuclear Medicine Research Infrastructure, dean of the health sciences faculty at the University of the Witwatersrand, Treatment Action Campaign and Section 27, said the views expressed by the commission “are at variance with the accepted scientific knowledge regarding Covid-19 vaccinations”. They called on the commission to withdraw its “ill-advised” statement immediately.

They said by expressing such views, the commission could fuel antivaccination sentiment and compromise the national vaccination programme as well as efforts to overcome the Covid-19 pandemic.  

“By misinterpreting the medical consequences of a slight lengthening of the menstrual cycles in a very small number of women after vaccination, among the billions of women who have been vaccinated worldwide, the commission’s statement inappropriately creates confusion and fear in the minds of women who have been vaccinated and is likely to increase vaccine hesitancy among women,” they said.

The bodies noted that pregnant women and their unborn babies are at a much greater risk of dying if they are not vaccinated, noting that one in six unvaccinated pregnant women admitted to hospital in SA with Covid-19 required mechanical ventilation and one in 16 died. Vaccination on the other hand provided upwards of 80% protection against severe disease, hospitalisation and death.

The College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of SA (Cogsa) has pointed out that the relatively rare effect of a slightly longer menstrual cycle is temporary, harmless and has no effect on menstrual health, fertility and reproductive health.

“The evidence is indisputable. Covid-19 vaccination is safe, does not affect women’s bodies negatively and saves women’s lives,” they said.

ensorl@businesslive.co.za

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