Women Say COVID Vaccine Side Effects Impact Their Periods, So Why Don't Doctors Care?

In any vaccine there are factors that can disrupt menstruation, but the way the medical establishment has been responding to reports of this possible coronavirus vaccine side effect reflects a broader problem

Tsafi Saar
Tsafi Saar
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A woman receives a coronavirus vaccine at a Clalit vaccination station in Jerusalem, last month.
A woman receives a coronavirus vaccine at a vaccination station in Jerusalem, last month. Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Tsafi Saar
Tsafi Saar

A 36-year-old woman went to the doctor after experiencing vaginal bleeding two days after she received her second dose of the coronavirus vaccine. It worried her, and her gynecologist performed an examination and sent her for blood tests. “The bleeding lasted 10 days, and the doctor told me that it seems like my period came early,” she said. “I told him that that’s weird, because my period has been very regular over the past year.” The doctor told her that “it happens,” and threw the offhand remark that it may be a sign of early menopause. “It was like a punch to the gut,” she said.

“There’s no need to explain how hard it is for a woman of my age to receive news like that from her doctor. For a few weeks, I was really mourning the fertility that I had seemingly lost,” she said. “It was only when a friend made a comment, after I told her about my sorry state, that maybe it’s really connected to the vaccine – that I Googled it and discovered, to my great surprise, that a huge number of women reported vaginal bleeding and irregular periods after being vaccinated. I was in shock. Why didn’t they warn me that this could be one of the side effects of the vaccine, like they warned me about a low fever and arm pain? Why did my doctor not say a word about it? Even if it hasn’t been proved scientifically by the book, how is it possible to ignore the reports of so many women?” she said.

This is just one story among an endless number about the vaccine’s effects on menstrual cycles. An early or late period, heavier than ever or more painful than usual – women’s testimonies are piling up. And how does the medical establishment treat them?

“Menstruation is controlled by hormones and is very much influenced by emotional or physical stress,” says Dr. Lior Shahar, a specialist in family medicine and medical sociologist who teaches medicine and gender at Tel Aviv University. She is a member of the board of the Briah Fund for the promotion of women’s health as well as of Physicians for Human Rights Israel. “For example, in situations of hunger or extreme diets, in situations of illness or in situations of noticeable emotional stress, a period can be disrupted, such as stopping menstruation or bleeding at the wrong time,” she says.

“It is known that the act of inoculation itself can arouse some physical stress, and especially the coronavirus vaccine, which also caused emotional stress for a lot of people. Accordingly, both concerning the vaccine and for women who fell ill with COVID-19, there are reports about changes in menstruation, and one of the hypotheses is that the mechanism is the stress mechanism – both physical and emotional – which is connected to the vaccine or the disease.” she adds that an inflammatory response is a normal immune reaction to vaccines, and this also affects vaginal bleeding. She provides an example: Getting the HPV vaccine is known to disrupt the periods of women and girls.

Dr. Lior Shahar in Tel Aviv.Credit: Moti Milrod

Have the vaccine’s effects on menstruation been studied in trials?

“The issue was not studied in advance by the companies that manufacture the vaccines.”

How much has the medical establishment dealt with the question? How have women’s reports been received?

“The medical establishment has treated the question with derision. As far as it is concerned, the appearance of vaginal bleeding or disruptions in menstruation are routine phenomena that happen every now and then, so there is no reason to treat them as a side effect.

“When I asked in doctor’s groups, and when I asked doctors individually – family doctors and gynecologists, men and women alike – I heard ‘There are reports but they’re baseless,’ ‘I heard from patients that it happens but I haven’t checked the literature,’ ‘I’m not familiar with any medical reference to it’ and so on. Some of these doctors also practice gender-based medicine.

People get tested for coronavirus at a compound in the Arab town of Tayibe, central Israel, last month.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

It seems as if female patients are frequently reporting this, but the establishment is disregarding the phenomenon.” Even on the forms that doctors must fill out for the Health Ministry regarding vaccine side effects, Shahar says, not all doctors mark this as one. Doctors “serve as the gatekeepers between patients and the Health Ministry, so there is now a situation where the numbers that they’re getting in the end underestimate the real situation.”

What does this story tell us about the way the medical establishment views phenomena that only affect women?

“There is clear discrimination here. Of course, it recalls the terrifying statements that Prof. Galia Rahav, the head of the infectious disease unit at Sheba Medical Center, Tel Hashomer, said at the time about facial nerve paralysis as a side effect of the vaccine: ‘At first they said these were hysterical women, but apparently not, because we’re seeing the effects in men as well, and I do believe that it’s real.’

“That’s not the shocking part. Facial nerve paralysis, like vaginal bleeding, is not a rare occurrence in its own right. But when there is suddenly a multiplicity of incidents in conjunction with the vaccine, it raises questions. Of course, this includes the question of whether it is a distortion resulting from over-reporting, but also the question of whether it is a side effect. In doctors’ groups of which I am a member, there were innumerable discussions about the topic of facial nerve paralysis, but there were no discussions at all about bleeding in women. It is outrageous to discover that when those reporting are women, it does not raise questions or discussions.”

I assume we’ve made progress in this area since we discovered the difference in the way men and women experience heart attacks, for example. How much progress has gender-based medicine made, and how is that progress expressed?

“There certainly has been progress in gender-based medicine. For example, The FDA now prohibits approving a drug without testing it on women too, and examining the difference in its effects on women and men. Today there are drugs that are approved in advance just for women or just for men. But in medical schools, they still do not learn about these differences in an organized manner, and most medical and health professionals don’t know the basis of gender-based medicine at all.

“But gender-based medicine is just part of the issue, and there’s the real problem. Gender-based medicine deals only with the biological differences between men and women and misses the issues related to power imbalances, discrimination, stereotyping, silencing, open or hidden violence, minimizing women in the public space, accessibility to health services – all these things that contribute so much to gender inequality in health. This is certainly true of women who are marginalized in a number of ways – women who are Mizrahi, Arab, lesbian, elderly, overweight, disabled and so on and so forth.

“That is why gender-based medicine is not enough. There is a need for feminist medicine. This is the true equal medicine, which provides a voice for women, which understands that a woman is not just a body, but a totality of experiences and social roles, of codes, of expectations and of sexual harassment, and the connection between them and her physical and psychological medical state cannot be broken. Until there is a deep understanding of this connection, there will not be good and equal medicine for women, or for any underprivileged group in society.”

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