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Correcting this week’s misinformation: week of November 9, 2023

How common is death after COVID vaccination?

The Claim:

New polling claims that 24% of Americans know someone whose death was caused by the COVID vaccine.

The Facts:

Poll results can be skewed or biased in a few ways. First, only people who are interested in answering for one reason or another are going to answer, which leads to participation bias or nonresponse bias, amongst other forms of bias. People with particular experiences are also the most likely to respond to certain surveys. In this case, it may be that people with strong feelings about COVID vaccines are the most likely to respond to the survey.

The survey question in this case doesn’t ask for verification on cause of death, so they aren’t asking if someone knows anyone whose official cause of death was the vaccine. The question asks if the respondent believes they know someone whose death was caused by a vaccine. As we know from looking at social media, many of those beliefs aren’t based on any medical fact, but rather on misinformation and misunderstanding.

The concern with this poll isn’t that vaccines are causing deaths, but that there is enough misinformation still perpetuating that those who are responding to these polls believe these vaccines are causing these deaths.

Has COVID vaccination caused a surge of sepsis?

The Claim:

An anti-vaccine Twitter account features the story of a 29-year-old who died from sepsis after he was vaccinated. The tweet goes on to hypothesize that sepsis cases have risen since COVID vaccination programs began.

The Facts:

Sepsis is a severe response of the body’s immune system to an infection. It can lead to high fever, an elevated heart rate, fast breathing, and, if left untreated, can progress to septic shock, which is characterized by dangerously low blood pressure and organ failure.

COVID vaccines are designed to trigger an immune response against the virus, but they do not cause the same response that leads to sepsis. The vaccines do not contain live virus particles and do not cause a full-blown infection. On the other hand, COVID infection, as well as secondary infections due to COVID can cause sepsis.

Sepsis cases has been increasing in hospitals, especially during the pandemic. In California, the number of sepsis cases that patients got while in the hospital went up by 46% from 2019 to 2021 because hospitals faced challenges like not having enough staff and having too many sick patients, which made it hard to prevent infections. 40% of all severe sepsis cases who died in 2021 in hospitals had been diagnosed with COVID.

While there has been an increase during the pandemic, this tweet ignored the fact that sepsis cases have been steadily rising for decades for a number of reasons. To blame this on COVID vaccines is ignorant at best and malicious at worst.

Can the flu vaccine kill you?

The Claim:

video posted online tells the story of one woman’s father who passed away after receiving a flu vaccine.

The Facts:

The main concern in this video is that the father was hospitalized with neurological issues following a flu vaccine, not with lung cancer. However, lung cancer can cause neurological issues due to brain metastases, leptomeningeal metastases, epidural spinal cord compression, cerebrovascular events, radiation-related complications, and neurologic complications associated with systemic therapies.

The National Academy of Science looked into the flu vaccine and neurological side effects and found that in 1976, the flu vaccine was linked to Guillain-Barré Syndrome (GBS). However, they didn’t find any connection between the vaccine and MS relapses.

They also didn’t find evidence that the flu vaccine causes nerve problems in young children. GBS is a severe condition, but it’s rare, and in 1976, less than 6 out of a million people who got the vaccine had it. On the other hand, the flu causes an average of 13.8 deaths per 100,000 people each year (36,000 deaths, mostly in people 65 and older), and 49 out of 100,000 people end up in the hospital with pneumonia and the flu (114,000 hospitalizations). So, while we need to be careful about vaccine risks, we also need to remember how much worse the flu itself can be.

The biggest takeaway from this video is that a person’s perceptions of their loved one’s medical journey is hard to decipher. Losing a parent is devastating, and untangling a medical history from those emotions as an outside to determine anything about cause of death is impossible. So we look to the science, and the science points to the flu vaccine as being worth a shot.

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