This journalistic investigation focused on the side effects of the covid-19 vaccine on menstrual cycles, an issue reported by thousands of women around the world, but ignored by the scientific and pharmaceutical industry. It gathered data through a survey made in Ecuador, and contrasted it with other data from other countries, testimonies, interviews with experts and bibliographical sources. It showed that there was a direct relation between the vaccine and menstrual changes and also exposed the lack of gender perspective not only in the creation of this vaccine, but in science in general.
This investigation evidenced, through data, something that thousands of women in Latin America and around the world were feeling without having clear or concrete responses from the medical and pharmaceutical industry. It showed not only that the side effects of the covid-19 vaccines on the menstrual cycles are real, independently of the brand, and that is necessary to include them in the official list of side effects to prevent women and other menstruant people; but also that there was a lack of gender focus in the development of the vaccines. It also clearly exposed the link between this topic and sexual and reproductive rights; and raised awareness on the need to include the gender focus on all scientific investigations and in the pharmaceutical industry in general.
Moreover, it put the focus on the importance of data and investigative journalism with a gender perspective to expose issues like this.
The publication was read by more than 4,000 people from 15 different countries including Ecuador, Peru, Colombia, Argentina, Mexico, United States, Spain, and others. For its revelations and rigor, it won the Pfizer Andean Cluster Award on Health Journalism 2022 in Ecuador. After this award, I received dozens of comments via Twitter from people of different countries, saying they appreciated the angle of the story and that this investigation was fundamental for them to understand something that was being neglected by doctors and that was not a priority for traditional media.
For this investigation, I created a survey of 25 questions, answered by 480 menstruating people, mainly women, who received at least one dose of the covid-19 vaccine. 392 of the people who answered the survey were from Ecuador, and the others were from Colombia, Mexico, Spain, Argentina, United States and Peru. The survey was created with the accompaniment of two data experts. They were in charge of processing and analyzing the data, and created a database in Excel and a detailed report of the main findings that was explained and used as one of the main sources in my journalistic piece. For the creation of this report, we previously created 20 guiding questions that allowed the experts to make a cross tabulation to understand the correlation between different variables.
I also conducted individual in-depth interviews with four women who answered the survey, to gather testimonies and explain each case deeply through the development of the narrative piece.
To have a broader vision on the topic and obtain explanation of the data, I also conducted three more in-depth interviews with experts, including a scientist, a lawyer that was leading an investigation on this topic in Peru, and a spokesperson from a NGO specialized in Sexual and Reproductive Rights. I contacted the Ministry of Public Health in Ecuador, but they did not gave me an interview. Moreover, to gather information about the clinical trials, I researched the Clinical Trials database (www.clinicaltrials.gov). This allowed me to confirm that the clinical trials on the vaccines did not consider the gender variable in their development. I also searched for different studies on the topic, published in different scientific journals.
Finally, I created infographic pieces that organize and display some of the most important data of the main findings and are embedded in the main text.
Context about the project:
This project was very challenging in a context in which women were not receiving information and validation about something they were experimenting, while there was a lot of misinformation and anti-vaxx discourses being spread through social media. It created the need to reveal information that even when exposing side effects, would not encourage people to untrust science, but question an industry that usually ignores half of the population’s needs. It was defying to create a well written and trustworthy piece that presented flaws from the industry but at the same time ensured the need of vaccination against covid-19.
It also was fundamental to understand and explain the context of the fight of women in Latin America to obtain sexual and reproductive rights: the story details how not having information about the effects on menstrual cycle could lead, in worst case scenarios, to unwanted pregnancies, in a context in which women are fighting to have legal access to abortion and were thousands of women lost access to contraceptives during the pandemic.
Moreover, the lack of gender perspective in data and investigative journalism made it difficult to access certain information. For example, in Ecuador, some governmental and official sources are not keen to talk to journalists like me, who specialize in gender stories, because they consider it less important than other matters; as happened with the Ministry of Public Health when I contacted them looking for information. This was especially contradictory because the actual Government used the vaccination campaign as a political tool, saying it was successful.
What can other journalists learn from this project?
I think it can help colleagues to understand that journalism with a gender perspective is not only covering gender-based violence and femicide, but that it can be transversal to every topic, including health and science. And most important, that investigative journalism is extremely necessary not only to expose findings but to change realities; and that women’s and diversities issues can (and must) be explored with data, in-depth tools and multimedia elements. Also, it is a great example to understand that sometimes the data is not fully available and that we can create databases ourselves, with the help of our audiences and communities and then process the information.