In mid-2021 as the COVID-19 vaccines became broadly available, I remember seeing patients as part of my first-year medical-student clinic rotation and hearing numerous reasons why they would not be getting the COVID-19 vaccine. Some of these reasons were fundamentally false — for example, that the vaccine could cause infertility or stunt the growth of children. Other concerns were rooted in legitimate questions, but warped into dangerous rumors in the absence of reliable information; for example, that the vaccine was not FDA approved and therefore was dangerous. At the time, the vaccine was available under an Emergency Use Authorization as more time was needed to pursue full regulatory approval; however, all available data indicated both safety and efficacy. I was fully vaccinated, and while I could personally share this with patients, I sensed that it was difficult for public health guidance dispensed during short clinic visits to compete with the onslaught of false information circulating on social media and in the news.
Later that year, I saw a Facebook post from someone I went to middle school with. We hadn’t kept in touch other than occasionally liking each other’s posts with brief snippets of life updates. I vaguely knew she had recently gotten married and given birth to her first child — but other than that, I couldn’t have told you much. The post she shared listed misleading information about a child dying after their mother received the COVID-19 vaccine and claimed that this was due to the transfer of the COVID-19 virus itself via breast milk. Upon further reading of the referenced report in VAERS (the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System)1, it became clear that this was a truly tragic incident — but with no connection to the vaccine. The child in the report had a prolonged bacterial infection, followed by rhinovirus, followed by Kawasaki disease, and ultimately died from the severe blood clots that are characteristic of Kawasaki disease. The grieving parent who filed the report asks, “They say Kawasaki disease presents very similarly to the Multi-System Inflammatory Syndrome in children that they are seeing in post-COVID infections … if they know that antibodies go through the breastmilk as a good thing, then why wouldn't the spike protein also go through the breastmilk and potentially cause problems?”
As a scientist and medical student, it’s easy for me to spot the fallacies here: The child was sadly very sick at a time that coincided with their mother’s vaccination. Given the referenced bacterial sepsis and rhinovirus, there is no reason to think a COVID-19 infection was involved. Finally, the COVID-19 vaccine contains only pieces of viral proteins in order to prime the immune system. It does not contain live virus and cannot cause COVID-19 infection.
However, it’s also easy to see how this tragic course of events could be twisted to serve a nefarious, anti-science narrative on social media — the complicated infectious disease course described certainly had some COVID-like elements, and the parent who filed this report asked a legitimate question about the vaccine, but one that could be answered with clear information about the vaccine’s composition.
In contrast, those who created this Facebook post ignored disclaimers posted on VAERS explaining that the publication of an incident report does not indicate that the event was caused by a vaccine, and those who posted failed to investigate the relevant biology before making alarmist claims that then spread unchecked on social media.
This is only one personal example of the vaccine misinformation that has rapidly spread, undermining trust in the vaccine and discouraging individuals from becoming vaccinated against COVID-19. Sadly, it is emblematic of a growing trend of anti-science misinformation that threatens public health.
When I saw her post, I immediately sent a private message to this childhood friend, telling her that I knew I was overstepping having not spoken with her in years, but that given the urgency of COVID-19, I wanted to share some CDC resources on the vaccine’s safety and personally ask if there were any questions I could help answer as someone involved in health care.
Not surprisingly given our tenuous connection, I never heard back from her. I don’t know if she or her family received the COVID-19 vaccine. But I hope that at some point, she received accurate vaccine information from someone knowledgeable and close to her. In my view, this is a responsibility that everyone involved in medicine and science shares: to advocate for science and public health in our own communities.
Today, the COVID-19 vaccines are fully FDA approved, not only in adults but also in children as young as 6 months old. Booster shots are also widely recommended, and there is a new bivalent COVID-19 booster that simultaneously provides protection against two viral strains. I’m not a doctor (just a medical student!) and my goal with this post isn’t to give medical advice — but I’d be remiss not to emphasize that the COVID-19 vaccines are safe and can provide protection against serious illness. It’s best to consult your doctor or CDC resources if you’re unsure or have personal questions.
I’m hoping that by sharing my personal experiences with vaccine misinformation, I can highlight how easy it is for these types of dangerous claims masquerading as true science to spread in our communities. I haven’t always been successful in addressing them, but I hope that by consistently sharing accurate information and advocating for science, we can all play a part in encouraging vaccination and saving lives.
United States Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), Public Health Service (PHS), Centers for Disease Control (CDC) / Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS) 1990 - 10/07/2022, CDC WONDER On-line Database. Accessed at http://wonder.cdc.gov/vaers.html on Oct 15, 2022 12:08:17 AM
Disclosure: Akshaya Annapragada is the co-founder and director of The Community Health Literacy Project, a national network of students, professionals and community members working to provide accurate and accessible health information to all people, regardless of language spoken or scientific background.
- Role Reversal: Getting Tested for COVID-19
- Equal Access for Trainees in the Wake of COVID-19
- Resuming Medical Training in the Era of COVID-19: A Medical Student’s Thoughts
- The Bayview Oath: Transcending Barriers in the Time of COVID-19
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