Mythbusting, episode 2021
(The one where Monica unpacks some COVID-19 vaccine misinformation for Rachel.)
By Rebecca Barnett
Over the past few weeks, AMT’s biosecurity committee has been putting its 2021 trousers on, finalising a COVID-19 vaccination fact sheet for massage therapists. Meanwhile, as Mark Twain pithily predicted, lies about COVID-19 vaccines appear to have travelled half way around the world already. Sigh.
And there’s a disturbing amount of misinformation appearing on many social media pages where massage therapists congregate.
One of the most egregious examples of this misinformation involves people sharing false claims about data housed in the Vaccine Adverse Event Register (VAERS).
Wait, what is VAERS?
VAERs is a comprehensive U.S. database of all adverse events reported after a vaccine is administered. Not just COVID-19 vaccines – all vaccines. It is co-managed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and acts as an early warning system to flag potential issues with vaccines.
Vaccine providers, healthcare workers and the public are encouraged to report any clinically significant health problem following vaccination to VAERS, regardless of whether a causal link between the vaccine and the event is established. In other words, the adverse event may be completely coincidental and unrelated to the vaccination. Also, reports to VAERS may include incomplete, inaccurate, and unverified information (because pretty much anyone can submit a report to it).
Essentially, VAERS is not designed to determine if a vaccine caused a health problem, but rather to detect unusual or unexpected patterns of adverse event reporting that might indicate a safety problem with a vaccine. It’s essentially a gigantic listening post.
We have an equivalent adverse event register in Australia called DAENS – the Database of Adverse Event Notifications – but because the COVID-19 vaccination rollout has only just commenced here, the COVID-19 vaccine data is yet to be meaningfully populated.
Back to the US VAERS data though. That’s where the online misinformation is currently cooking, cause millions of COVID-19 vaccine doses have already been administered so there’s plenty of data just waiting to be mined …
Wild claims about the COVID vaccines from VAERS data
Thousands dead within 2 hours of receiving a COVID vaccine!
117,000 most likely dead – run like hell!!
12,697 injured, 653 dead – and that’s just the 1% of adverse events reported to VAERS!!! (Thank you Joe Mercola. Which overpriced non-proven immune boosting supplement would you like to sell me today?)
I have seen some spectacular claims and flat out ridiculous shit takes.
The problem is that all of them either wildly misunderstand the nature of VAERS data or exhibit a lack of ability to create meaningful queries in VAERS or are based on searches from an unverified third party website that is run by a private citizen who apparently extracts data from VAERS. Pardon me if I don’t provide a hyperlink to that website.
What does the VAERS data actually report about, say, deaths?
As at 18 February, 41 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine had been administered in the US.[i] Over the same period, 656 deaths were reported to VAERS (yes, that is still a very large number of reported deaths). These deaths represent 0.000016% of total doses administered or 16 deaths per million doses. 80% of these reported deaths occurred in the 65+ age group and 92% occurred in the 50+ age group.[ii] But it’s important to remember that there is not necessarily a causal link between the deaths reported on VAERS and the vaccination. In fact, when you dig down into the individual case reports, the cause of death is frequently attributed by the treating doctors to age-related chronic conditions or, for some unlucky souls, a COVID-19 infection contracted prior to receiving a vaccine.
Are you interested in searching VAERS yet? If the answer is yes, watch this video explainer first.
What about anaphylaxis, I hear you ask …
I confess, I haven’t yet searched VAERS for reports of severe allergic reactions. However, someone far cleverer than me has analysed that data and established the rate of anaphylactic allergic reactions to the Pfizer vaccine at 4.7 cases per million doses. No deaths have resulted from these cases.[iii]
The overwhelming majority of reports in the VAERS database relate to the common side effects of COVID-19 vaccines, such as fever, headache, chills and pain at the site of injection.
Interested in a fun fact?
More adverse events were reported in the control (placebo, non-vaccine) arm of the Oxford Astra Zeneca vaccine trial than the vaccine arm (84 severe adverse events in the vaccine group and 91 in the placebo control group). Nocebo anyone?
Actually, I shouldn’t be flippant. Some of those adverse events included deaths from road traffic accidents, homicide and blunt force trauma – even during clinical vaccine trials amidst a global pandemic, people die of tragically ordinary things and from violence.
Read more about how vaccine trials are conducted in this article by Hilda Bastian – A Reader’s Guide to Safety & Adverse Event Data From Vaccine Trials.
A final word
Given how stressful and overwhelming the last 12 months have been, a bit of vaccine hesitancy is a fairly rational response. You may be experiencing vaccine hesitancy yourself and you’re certainly going to encounter it in some of your clients, friends or family members.
Please be cautious about information you read on social media regarding vaccines because there is a minefield of dubious claims being shared and re-shared, especially within massage therapist groups. Hopefully, AMT’s soon-to-be-released COVID-19 vaccination fact sheet will help you to navigate the complexities and uncertainties of the vaccination information out there.
Actually, this is the final word
The AMT vaccination fact sheet will be released soon. It includes a plain English explanation of the different types of COVID-19 vaccines, more information on safety and efficacy, and the key implications of the vaccination rollout for massage therapists.
About the Author
Rebecca Barnett really quite enjoyed searching VAERS and reading some of the case reports. She is aware that’s odd and painfully aware of the avoidable tragedy buried in many of those stories.
[i] https://covid.cdc.gov/covid-data-tracker/#vaccinations, accessed 18 February
[iii] Shimabukuro TT, Cole M, Su JR. Reports of Anaphylaxis After Receipt of mRNA COVID-19 Vaccines in the US—December 14, 2020-January 18, 2021. JAMA. Published online February 12, 2021. doi:10.1001/jama.2021.1967