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How anti-vaccine misinformation hampers the conversation about genuine vaccine injuries

HAKAN NURAL-UNSPLASH

In the United Kingdom, MP Andrew Bridgen was suspended from the Conservative party on Jan. 11 for persistent misinformation about COVID vaccines, including numerous false claims around their safety. The final straw appears to have been his comments comparing the vaccination program to the Holocaust.

With more than 13 billion doses administered to date, we know COVID vaccines are overwhelmingly safe, effective, and a vital tool that must continue to underpin the pandemic response.

In very rare cases though, vaccines can be linked to serious injuries and even death. Vaccine injuries (also often called adverse events) are a difficult area in which to carry out research or advocacy, partly because anti-vaccine communities persistently muddy the waters with misinformation and abuse. This does a disservice to those who have a genuine vaccine injury.

In the UK, severe adverse events are tracked and documented by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency and the Office for National Statistics (ONS). The ONS has reported that up to November 2022, there had been 50 deaths in England where a COVID vaccine was the underlying cause, and one in Wales.

Adverse events seen with the COVID vaccines include myocarditis (inflammation of the heart muscle) and thrombosis (blood clots).

Cases of vaccine-associated thrombosis are rare, occurring in around one in 50,000 doses of the AstraZeneca COVID vaccine. Some of these thrombosis cases can be serious. The mRNA vaccines, which are based on a different vaccine technology to the AstraZeneca vaccine, are now typically used in the UK, although the AstraZeneca vaccine does continue to be used around the world.

The risk of myocarditis is slightly elevated in young males after the mRNA vaccines (from Pfizer and Moderna). These cases are usually mild and patients recover well.

However, there are significant risks related to both these conditions with a COVID infection. One study of 43 million people concluded that the risk of myocarditis is greater after a COVID infection than after vaccination. Multiple studies have highlighted how the risk of thrombosis is increased even after mild COVID infections.

Vaccine injuries are very unfortunate, and tragic when a life is lost. But evidence shows the benefits of vaccination continue to greatly outweigh the risks.

We repeatedly see the linking of celebrity deaths or injuries to COVID vaccines, without any evidence. A recent example is Damar Hamlin, the American footballer who collapsed on the pitch during a game. There’s no evidence that his injuries (nor those of other young athletes) were caused by a COVID vaccine.

Returning briefly to Bridgen’s Holocaust comparison, this is not a new tactic. Inflammatory rhetoric is common in some anti-vaccine communities. Global health experts have highlighted the racist abuse they receive when providing informed advocacy about the public health benefits of immunization. This can make vaccine advocacy a very difficult and unpleasant place to tread.

Most of us line up for our COVID jabs, or take our children for their routine immunizations, and do so in good faith. Confidence in the immunization programs is vital. Transparency and informed discussions about risk of any vaccine injury is an important part of this.

And yet, because of the presence of misinformation, inflammatory comments and occasionally outright abuse, it’s hard to openly talk about those (small) risks. This is a shame, since vaccine injuries are a hugely important area.

For example, when I was recently giving a public talk on vaccination, a gentleman in the audience reported how he had suffered a severe adverse event soon after his second AstraZeneca jab. From his comments, it sounded very plausible that he may indeed have experienced a vaccine injury.

I intended to follow this up in the Q&A section of my talk. Alas, a few other attendees distracted the discussion with comments promoting various anti-vaccine tropes, and the moment was lost.

Many countries, including the UK, have a compensation scheme for people who sustain an injury that’s likely to be attributable to a vaccination. I asked this gentleman whether he had been able to access the UK compensation program. He suggested he had been pointed towards it, but found it difficult to access and understand.

An article published in the British Medical Journal in June 2022 reported the UK government’s vaccine damage payment scheme had made “a handful” of payments for injuries associated with the COVID vaccine, with cases taking many months to process. This process should be quicker and easier to access.

It’s difficult to quantify to what degree misinformation and anti-vaccine sentiment are impeding the experience of seeking help for people with a vaccine injury. But Rachel Schraer, a BBC reporter covering health and misinformation, points out in relation to the Bridgen case: “It’s something more than one genuinely vaccine-injured person has told me is further hurting their ability to get help.”

It’s estimated that the COVID vaccination program had saved 19.8 million lives globally by December 2021. Continued public health benefit partly relies on confidence in the vaccines.

Compensation programs are important to underpin this confidence, and should be transparent and straightforward. But at the same time, the misinformation and inflammatory rhetoric from the anti-vaccine community is hindering the very people they claim to be advocating for.

Michael Head is a Senior Research Fellow in Global Health at the University of Southampton. He has previously received funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the UK Department for International Development. He has not received funding from the pharmaceutical sector.

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