If You're Worried About The J&J Vaccine, Let's Talk About Birth Control Too

by Sa'iyda Shabazz
Cezary Kowalski/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty

Earlier this week, the FDA and CDC decided to pause the distribution of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Six women between the ages of 18 and 48 were found to have a rare blood clot within two weeks of receiving the vaccine. Before the vaccine was paused, 6.8 million people received the J&J vaccine. So currently, the odds are literally one in a million.

According to The New York Times, one of the women has been hospitalized, and another has tragically died. I appreciate that the CDC takes these matters so seriously to keep us all as safe as possible, but I think many people are going off the rails with irrational (and misguided) fear. Pausing the distribution of the vaccine seemed to create even more discomfort and misunderstanding amongst the general public. And with those odds, it feels like an almost unnecessary public panic.

I think keeping these things in context is incredibly important and helpful.

For example, let’s discuss the risk of taking oral contraceptives. Birth control doesn’t directly cause clots, but it does significantly raise the odds of getting one. Why haven’t we been sounding the alarm on birth control for all these years?

According to the National Blood Clot Alliance, the chances of a woman developing blood clots while on birth control are three or four times higher. They estimate that 1 in 1,000 women who take the pill will develop a clot per year. Currently, the odds of developing a blood clot from the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is one in one million. Of course, they shouldn’t ignore those who suffered from clots, but if clots from birth control are considered a low risk side-effect, why is something far more rare causing them to pause the distribution of this life-saving vaccine?

It’s important to note that the kinds of clots are different. The reaction to the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is cerebral venous sinus thrombosis (CVST), which is a clot in the brain. CVST happens when the sinuses in your head that drain blood get blocked. The clots caused by birth control usually happen in the leg, specifically the thigh or calf, which is deep vein thrombosis. The clot can travel from the leg to the lungs, but that is quite rare. Approximately five people out of a million each year have a CVST. Additionally, women who are on birth control face higher risks of CVST than men and women who aren’t on the pill. However, your chance of developing a deep vein thrombosis is one in 1,000 every year.

According to Insider, the FDA and CDC’s concern isn’t so much the number of women with clots. It’s more that those who did get clots also had low levels of blood platelets. Blood platelets are the cells that stop bleeding. But according to Dr. Melanie Swift, the number of people who have had this combination of symptoms is “too low to provide a population estimate.” Swift is an internist and vaccine expert at the Mayo Clinic. That means J&J is erring deeply on the side of caution by pausing distribution of the vaccine, likely to prevent further anti-science/vaccine rhetoric.

“This type of a combination of low platelets and blood clots has been very rarely seen in the past in other situations as an autoimmune phenomenon, but it’s very, very rare,” director of the Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research at the FDA, Dr. Peter Marks, said during a briefing on Tuesday April 13th.

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One of the other causes for concern is that this particular pairing of symptoms are difficult to treat. “Treatment of this specific type of blood clot is different from the treatment that might typically be administered,” the CDC and FDA said in a joint statement, via Vice. They went on to explain that they can’t go the route of their normal treatment. Typically, heparin — an anticoagulant drug — would be administered. But in these cases, that could actually be dangerous. So if they can’t use their normal course of action, they probably don’t have another option readily available.

Investigating what’s going on and why these women got clots is critically important. Especially because as of right now, it only seems to be women who are the ones being affected. Seeing the FDA and CDC taking women’s health seriously is incredibly reassuring. But by everyone’s own admission, what happened is so incredibly rare, they don’t even have any data to go off of. So, to see this information taken so far out of context by the general public is frustrating, especially when there are so many people dying everyday from COVID-19 infections.

If you’ve already had the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, you don’t need to start worrying about suddenly developing a clot. When you got it seems to make a difference. “If they have received the shot and it has been over two weeks since getting the shot, they should not worry, as the problem seems to occur early,” Dr. Paul Geopfert, a professor of medicine at the University of Alabama at Birmingham who also worked on the J&J vaccine, told Insider. He also thinks that the combination of how rare the occurrence is paired with the pause will make it unlikely that we’ll see many more cases, if any. For those who’ve gotten the shot in the last two weeks, look out for “severe headaches, confusion, and loss of consciousness,” as those are CVST symptoms, according to Geopfert.

As of right now, it’s more deadly to attend a gender reveal party than it is to get the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Two men died just this past March in Mexico. The men, who were pilots, were killed when their plane, carrying a sign saying “it’s a girl” crashed. Two more men (in two different instances) were killed in February 2021. So that’s four people this year alone, which is three more than people who have died from getting the vaccine.

Yes, it was in the best interest of the CDC and FDA to put the Johnson & Johnson vaccine on pause to figure things out. But really, one in a million odds? You have a better chance of getting hit by a freaking bus than you do of this rare blood clot. And that’s not even overreacting. We must take science seriously. But we also need to know when we’re being alarmist.