No Evidence of Link Between U.S. Infant Mortality Rate Increase and COVID-19 Vaccines
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A recent federal report shows a 3% increase in the U.S. infant mortality rate between 2021 and 2022, which is the first statistically significant rise in 20 years. The cause of the uptick is unknown, but there’s no evidence that it’s due to COVID-19 vaccination, as some social media posts baselessly suggest.
A recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that in 2022, 5.6 infants out of every 1,000 live births died before they turned 1 in the U.S., a 3% increase over 2021. This returns the infant mortality rate, which has steadily fallen over the decades, to the 2019 level.
The data in the report, which compared birth and death records collected through the National Vital Statistics System, are provisional. The last time the infant mortality rate had a statistically significant year-to-year increase was from 2001 to 2002, when it also rose by 3%.
The rise in 2022 was driven by significant increases in mortality for several categories measured in the report — in infants born to women ages 25 to 29; in infants born in four states (Georgia, Iowa, Missouri and Texas); in infants of American Indian and Alaska Native and white women; in infants born preterm; and in male babies. Mortality rates also increased in cases of maternal complications and bacterial sepsis, two of the 10 leading causes of infant death.
But Danielle Ely, a co-author of the study and a health statistician at the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics, told us that other than the increase in infant mortality itself, the data didn’t show “any specific trends or narratives to note at this point.”
“This could potentially be a single year increase and in 2023 the rate could remain at this level or decline, however the rate could also increase again in 2023. We will not know for sure until we have complete provisional data for 2023,” she said in an email.
But some social media users took advantage of the uncertainty to push their own narratives.
“So the CDC is reporting the largest increase in infant mortality in the past 20 years. And apparently experts are baffled. You’re baffled? Really? Gosh it’s so weird that experts are baffled but those of us who have been non-compliant for the past three years know exactly why this has happened,” a woman suggestively said in a popular Nov. 8 Instagram post.
Another viral post published on Facebook the same day shows a collage of CNN headlines with boxes and lines linking encouraging news about COVID-19 vaccination in pregnant women to a last headline about the rise in infant mortality. “I wonder when we’ll see the actual data in its totality,” the caption reads.
There is no evidence that the infant mortality increase is caused by COVID-19 vaccination, as the social media posts imply.
As we recently explained, multiple studies show COVID-19 vaccines are safe and beneficial for pregnant people and their newborns. According to the CDC, people who are pregnant are more susceptible to severe COVID-19, which can harm the mother and the baby. Infection with the coronavirus during pregnancy can also increase the risk of stillbirth. Vaccination during pregnancy can also protect babies from COVID-19 after birth, thanks to protective antibodies that are passed through the placenta.
There is no indication that breast milk after vaccination is unsafe either, as we’ve reported.
“We have extensive evidence that COVID-19 vaccination in pregnancy does not increase the risk that babies will die and may even decrease it,” Victoria Male, a lecturer in reproductive immunology at Imperial College London, told us in an email.
According to an online explainer created and updated by Male, 39 studies, across 10 countries, have tracked the safety of COVID-19 vaccination during pregnancy. Two systematic reviews and meta-analyses that include many of those studies found “COVID vaccination reduces the risk of stillbirth and babies needing intensive care, presumably because these can occur as a result of COVID infection,” she wrote.
Eight of the 39 studies, which followed infants from birth to up to 1 year, found babies in the vaccinated groups didn’t show an increased risk for serious illness or death, Male added in the explainer.
“Of these, seven found no effect of COVID-19 vaccination in pregnancy on infant deaths,” she told us, and one “found COVID-19 vaccination in pregnancy associated with a reduced risk of babies dying in their first 28 days of life.”
Photo by annaperevozkina / stock.adobe.com
According to the CDC, COVID-19 vaccination is safe for people who are pregnant and does not increase the risk for pregnancy complications including miscarriage, preterm delivery, birth defects and stillbirth, as we’ve reported. For older babies who get them, COVID-19 vaccines may cause some temporary side effects, such as irritability and crying, injection site pain, sleepiness, fever, and loss of appetite, but serious adverse events are rare. Vaccination is recommended for babies beginning at 6 months old.
“Extensive data on the safety of COVID-19 vaccination to pregnant women and their infants has shown no evidence of increased infant death after COVID-19 vaccination,” a spokesperson for the CDC told us in an email.
In 2021, when vaccines started being widely administered, the infant mortality rate was practically the same as 2020. A separate CDC report published in November shows that the fetal mortality, or stillborn, rate declined 5% from 2021 to 2022 in the U.S.
Possible Reasons for the Rise in Infant Mortality
The data do not point to a clear cause or causes for the one-year rise in infant mortality. But, experts told us, COVID-19 might partly explain the increase.
“Over time, we’ve learned that getting COVID-19 during pregnancy raises the chances of problems for both the pregnant person and the baby. This includes a higher risk of having a baby too early or having a stillborn baby,” a CDC spokesperson told us.
Male told us data in the U.K. showed an increase in deaths of babies under 28 days old in 2021.
“4.8% of these deaths were in babies whose mothers were infected with COVID at the time they gave birth, although it’s important to be clear that the data does not tell us whether COVID was a cause of death in these babies,” she told us.
Experts speculate the pandemic may also have impacted infant mortality in other ways. Dr. Patricia Gabbe, a clinical professor of pediatrics at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, told NBC that pregnancy outcomes could have been affected by reduced access to proper prenatal care during the pandemic.
The increase in pediatric RSV and flu infections seen after pandemic precautions eased “could potentially account for some of it,” too, Dr. Eric C. Eichenwald, chief of the neonatology division at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, told the Associated Press.
The highest infant mortality rates continue to exist among infants of Black, American Indian and Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander people, according to the latest report.
“We do know that families in poverty face many challenges including access to nutritious food and affordable healthcare,” Dr. Sandy L. Chung, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said in a statement about the CDC’s report. “Racial and ethnic disparities related to accessible healthcare — including prenatal health services — are just one of the many possible reasons for lower birth weights of babies and sometimes, infant deaths.”