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We fact checked claims that vaccines caused Germany's birth rate to plunge. Here's what we found

RMIT ABC Fact Check
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RMIT ABC Fact Check and RMIT FactLab present the latest in debunked misinformation.

CheckMate is a weekly newsletter from RMIT FactLab which recaps the latest in the world of fact checking and misinformation, drawing on the work of FactLab and its sister organisation, RMIT ABC Fact Check.

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CheckMate July 15, 2022

This week, CheckMate investigates allegations that vaccines are behind a sudden fall in fertility rates in Germany and elsewhere.

We also debunk a claim revived by LNP senator Gerrard Rennick that climate change has stalled, and take a look under the hood of Mark Latham's swipe at the Terminator, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

No, a sharp fall in Germany's birth rate isn't proof that vaccines cause infertility

A number of blog and social media posts have sought to draw a link between COVID-19 vaccines and the risk of infertility, highlighting large falls in the birth rates of various countries, including Germany.

"This is a massive safety signal for infertility. Germany's FIRST report of birth rates since the rollout," read one tweet, which attracted more than 11,000 likes before the account was suspended.

The post included a chart showing that births in Germany during the first three months of 2022 had fallen by around 15 per cent compared to the same period in 2021.

"If the next quarter is worse, this is Children of Men scenario," it said, referencing the dystopian movie in which humanity becomes infertile.

Interestingly, Germany's latest (provisional) figures show there was indeed a substantial fall in the number of births recorded in January to March this year — suggesting a roughly 11 per cent drop compared to the same quarter in 2020.

So, what was happening with COVID-19 vaccinations when the January babies were conceived, back in April 2021?

Sleeping baby, close up of  face and hands
A sharp fall in Germany's birth rate has not been mirrored across the border in France.(ABC: Kala Lampard)

According to the official data, roughly 9 million 18-59 year-olds (20 per cent) had received a single jab. Of those, just 1.8 million (4 per cent) were double-vaccinated.

Eligibility restrictions were dropped in early June, and by month's end the number of double-vaccinated people in this group had surged to nearly 16 million (35 per cent).

Prior to that, a spokeswoman for Germany's statistics office told CheckMate, "predominantly elderly people and vulnerable groups were vaccinated", making a connection between births and vaccinations "very unlikely".

Natalie Nitsche, a research scientist from the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research, cautioned that despite the "striking" correlation between births and the vaccine rollout, this was "of course no indication of a causal relationship".

If such a relationship existed, she said, there should be a gradual decline in births. "But we don't see this, all three months have about the same number of births".

And while the monthly data reveals a large, 17-per-cent fall in January 2022 (relative to 2020), subsequent drops in February (7 per cent) and March (9 per cent) were smaller.

Dr Nitsche also pointed to vaccinated countries such as Serbia and France to note that crashing birth rates were not a "universal phenomenon".

Catherine Bennett, chair in epidemiology with Deakin University, told CheckMate that "observations [about vaccine effects] at a population level only can be misleading".

Not only would they miss whether the women being vaccinated already had a lower fertility rate, for example, but they may also struggle to untangle the various effects of COVID-19 infection, financial stress and other behavioural factors which are "all running together", she said.

Experts variously pointed out that past health and economic crises have been associated with falls in birth rates, while some said COVID-19 restrictions had likely had an effect.

The statistics office spokeswoman told CheckMate that "a significant increase in births" during 2021 could mean that some people had brought forward their pregnancy plans, so were not having children now.

Other people, however, may have delayed their plans until after they were fully vaccinated, which Dr Nitsche said was in-line with the health advice.

Crucially, experts told CheckMate, the clinical data does not show that COVID-19 vaccinations increase infertility.

Although one Israeli study has suggested the jab may temporarily reduce sperm quality, the study included just 37 people, and other studies have shown no effect.

Ben Mol, a professor of obstetrics and gynaecology with Monash Health, said he had seen "10 different studies that reported on fertility outcomes after IVF", which showed "no change in sperm … no change in eggs and … no change in pregnancy and birth rates."

"We haven't seen anything [in Australia] that looks like a drop", let alone falls of the magnitude being claimed online, Professor Mol added.

Terminating Mark Latham's Facebook meme

Actor Arnold Schwarzenegger delivers a speech during the opening of COP24 UN Climate Change Conference 2018
"All of my Hummers have been made environmentally friendly," claims climate activist Arnold Schwarzenegger.(AP: Czarek Sokolowski)

One Nation NSW state MP Mark Latham has taken to Facebook to accuse former Terminator star and Republican governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger of "woke" hypocrisy.

"Woke is now defined in modern dictionaries as 'Gross virtue signalling hypocrisy'," reads the caption of Mr Latham's post, above two juxtaposed images.

The first photo shows Schwarzenegger with teen climate activist Greta Thunberg, taken at the Austrian World Summit, an annual convention on climate change initiatives organised by the Schwarzenegger Climate Initiative.

A second shows him walking to a Hummer — a massive, army-style, four-wheel-drive vehicle — badged with the name "Terminator".

Hummers are notorious petrol-guzzlers, once described by Wired magazine as the "poster child of excess consumption and inefficiency".

And Schwarzegger claims to have been instrumental in bringing the vehicle, modelled on the US-military Humvee, to the civilian population back in 1992.

But the Hummer photo is not the smoking gun it appears to be.


A reverse image search reveals it was taken as early as 2014, roughly five years before his 2019 photo with Ms Thunberg, which has since become an internet meme.

A spokeswoman for his climate foundation pointed CheckMate to a more recent promotional video in which Schwarzenegger directly addresses claims about his use of Hummers.

"Of course, all of my Hummers have been made environmentally friendly," he says, tapping the side of one car.

"So, as a matter of fact, there's vegetable oil that is in there. When I turn on the engine, immediately it starts smelling like French fries."

Before showcasing the solar panels installed all over a hillside in "his own home", Schwarzenegger explains how one of his other Hummers is powered by hydrogen, and another by electricity.

Indeed, the electric car was launched in 2017 by the Austrian company Kreisel.

However, the car has still attracted criticism from some quarters for the volume of electricity it requires, which, unless drawn from 100 per cent renewables, continues to add to emissions.

Temperatures still rising, despite senator's claims

A grey-haired man wearing a mask and glasses speaks to a crowd of journalists and cameras.
Liberal Senator Gerrard Rennick recently shared a 2013 article on "climate change crap". The seven hottest years on record have all occurred since the piece was published.(Tamara Penniket)

This week, Queensland LNP senator Gerard Rennick dusted off a nine-year-old article to wrongly suggest that global temperatures had stopped rising, demanding that people "cut the climate change crap" and, instead, focus on energy shortages.

"So much for the science being settled," he wrote in a widely shared Facebook post. "Looks like the climate change fear mongers have finally been seen for the charlatans they are."

Quoting directly from a 2013 article published in Britain's Daily Mail — about a leaked draft of a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) — Senator Rennick's post went on to say that "1998 was the hottest year on record and world temperatures have not yet exceeded it, which scientists have so far struggled to explain".

However, all that is ancient history, with four of the world's leading climate datasets all pointing to a rise in surface temperatures over the 24 years since 1998.

In fact, 2016 and 2020 were the two hottest years on record, and the seven hottest have all occurred between 2015 and 2021.

So, why does — or did — 1998 matter?

On the one hand, it signified the start of the 14-year period during which temperatures continued to rise, but at a slightly slower rate than some previous decades (depending on the point of comparison). During this time, heat continued to be absorbed by the ocean.

Professor Mark Howden, director of the Australian National University's Climate Change Institute, told CheckMate there was no cooling, "just variation around an increasing trend".

It's worth noting that while the Daily Mail article suggested politicians were seeking to "cover up" data in the IPCC report, it's clear from other news reports that the debate was about how to accurately communicate the science around this event.

Professor Howden said it was not unusual for governments to argue over specific language in these reports, but said they had "not question[ed] the science content … relating to global energy budgets and temperatures".

In any case, the IPCC's latest assessment report says that "there is now high confidence that the observed 1998 — 2012 global surface temperature trend is consistent with ensembles of climate model simulations, and there is now very high confidence that the slower rate of global surface temperature increase observed over this period was a temporary event".

The year 1998 has loomed large in climate misinformation because it was an unusually hot year, driven by one of the strongest El Nino events ever recorded.

As AAP Fact Check, and Climate Feedback have all shown, this has made it a popular candidate for cherry picking — with 1998 often used as a baseline to make subsequent temperature increases look smaller.

Labor to push ahead with political advertising reform

Two corflutes sit side by side near a road.
A conservative lobby group deployed suspect advertising (left) against independent David Pocock during the recent election.(ABC News: Luke Stephenson)

The federal government has said it will legislate a suite of electoral reforms during this term of parliament, including a requirement for real-time disclosures for political donations over $1,000 and so-called truth in political advertising laws.

Speaking with the Sydney Morning Herald, Special Minister of State Don Farrell did not give a precise timeline for bringing on the legislation, but said any advertising rules would apply "across the board" — including for online and, potentially, social media.

Senator Farrell also told The Guardian the government would aim to introduce spending caps on political advertising.

RMIT ABC Fact Check has previously written about the state of truth-in-advertising laws, after independent MP Zali Steggall claimed it was "perfectly legal" to lie in political advertisements.

That claim, it turned out, was close to the mark.

During the recent election, CheckMate also looked into some of the suspect advertising deployed by a conservative lobby group against independent David Pocock, during his successful campaign to win one of the ACT's Senate seats.

That group had previously fallen foul of South Australia's truth-in-political advertising law — one of the few Australian jurisdictions where such rules exist.

Edited by David Campbell

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This newsletter is supported by funding from the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas(Judith Nielson Institute)
Posted , updated