Vaccine misinformation is alive and well — and more perverse than ever

No quarter for anti-vaxxers lying about others’ health emergencies

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ILLUSTRATION: Raissa Sourabh / The Peak

By: Robert Sim, SFU Student

The last year has seen a terrible new trend in misinformation; the spreading of false news stories tying sudden deaths among young people to vaccine side effects. It’s perverse and dangerous.

COVID-19 vaccines are amazing. They were developed at lightspeed, tested by researchers all over the world, and are effective at protecting people from severe COVID-19. They’re also associated with a mild rise in the risk of myocarditis, which, in rare cases, can result in death. It’s most likely to occur in men aged 1825, though out of every 100,000 who receive the vaccine, up to two men are likely to be affected. Ironically, COVID-19 is more likely to produce myocarditis than the vaccine. 

It’s particularly prevalent when an athlete dies, seemingly suddenly. Conservative activists seem to love these events. On January 17th, 2023, Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin suffered a sudden cardiac arrest. The far-right leaped on the incident. Fox Entertainment host Tucker Carlson noted that “young athletes are collapsing at alarming rates since COVID-19 vaccines became widely available,” according to NPR. Other far-right figures advanced the same narratives. Actor Kevin Sorbo directly attributed Hamlin’s cardiac event to the vaccine, tweeting, “it’s the jab.”

This isn’t new, either. And it’s not just the pundits. Republican Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin became an early adopter of the narrative last year, saying, “We’ve heard story after story. I mean, all these athletes dropping dead on the field, but we’re supposed to ignore that.” Johnson, who was recently re-elected, has been a long-time anti-vaxxer

Myocarditis can lead to cardiac arrest and technically, the COVID-19 vaccine can — in very rare cases — cause sudden cardiac arrest. However, in 2021, the CDC found “that myocarditis occurs more frequently among COVID-19 patients and that there is a 16 times higher risk of myocarditis among individuals with COVID-19.”

But anti-vaxxers haven’t let those numbers sway them. 

This conservative movement, which seeks to generate awareness of Sudden Adult Death Syndrome (or SADS), is perverse. For starters, it’s hypocritical to watch those who were up in arms about a subreddit tracking the deaths of COVID-deniers suddenly turn around and exploit the health emergencies of others for their political platform. But more importantly, the lie is damaging to public discourse and safety. Fewer and fewer Canadians are feeling any zeal for vaccination and boosters, despite COVID-19 still being very much a threat.  

There isn’t a plague of vaccine victims. There just aren’t. But spreading these stories keeps the doubtful from getting vaccinated. The data is in; vaccines reduce the chance of getting COVID-19, and present little risk to one’s health. But that data isn’t reaching everyone. In some circles, discussion of conspiracies like SADS is sowing more doubt in vaccines, despite those claims having been fact-checked, again, and again, and again

Anti-vaxxers leaping to claim strangers’ medical emergencies as evidence of their conspiracies is a new low. In response, we need to adopt the practice of spreading valid strategies for public health as an ongoing project by everyone who accepts the science behind vaccines; we need to spend just as much time and energy sharing and repeating good information as anti-vaxxers do when they spread flagrant falsehoods.