As millions of people get vaccinated every day, there have been innumerable conspiracy theories about the coronavirus vaccine itself. Some are seemingly innocuous — often coming from fringe "health experts" on platforms like Clubhouse — while others, like this latest one published in the New York Post, are causing escalated concerns. Specifically, the Post ran an article that led many to question: Can the COVID-19 vaccine give you herpes?
According to the article published this morning, scientists in Israel allegedly identified six cases of patients developing a skin rash known as herpes zoster, also known as shingles, after receiving the Pfizer vaccine. For my fellow hypochondriacs, let's get this out of the way early on: this is not HSV-1, which causes cold sores, and it's not HSV-2, which is usually responsible for genital herpes — not that there is anything wrong or uncommon with either of those. But this is North America, and just the word herpes strikes fear in anyone reading it because, as a society, we have an obsessive fixation around the stigma that they carry.
But let's back up to the vaccine herpes study. For context, these results were out of a study involving 491 patients which makes six people about 1.2% of those observed. "We cannot say the vaccine is the cause at this point," Dr. Victoria Furer, the lead author of the study told the Jerusalem Post. And, according to the study, each person who experienced this reaction had preexisting mild cases of autoimmune inflammatory rheumatic diseases.
"This is a signal that deserves attention. There is biological plausibility and it needs to be studied more," Amesh Adalja, MD, and senior scholar at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security told Refinery29. "But what I object to is the headline. People don't know that it's herpes zoster. Chickenpox is a herpes virus. It's a viral family." It's our clickbait culture, Adalja says, that promotes this type of headline, rather than saying outright that it was shingles. Herpes may be a buzzword, but the majority of people are unaware that shingles, chickenpox, and even mononucleosis are all under the herpes category.
At present, it is unclear what caused these patients to experience shingles, but it appears to be triggered, at least in part, by a decrease in immunity, reports WebMD. Outbreaks of shingles have often been linked to stress, stressful life events, and depressive symptoms, all of which have become increasingly prevalent during the pandemic.
"Other than the people who had serious prior allergic reactions, to date, no other incidents of other medical events that exceed the normal background rate of those events in the community have been found," William Schaffner, a professor of medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center told WebMD, citing data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Shingles occurs when the varicella-zoster virus, the same one that causes chickenpox, is reactivated after lying dormant in the body, according to the Mayo Clinic. Anyone who has had chickenpox is technically at risk for developing shingles. The CDC estimates that more than 99% of Americans born before 1980 have had chickenpox, which means a lot of people are at risk of getting shingles regardless of the coronavirus vaccine.
But this didn't stop the conspiracy that vaccines were causing shingles from growing online. "Read the article and see what it says and not the headline alone. Think about the fact that not everything that happens after a vaccine is caused by the vaccine," Adalja said. "They're talking about six cases post-vaccine out of how many? What's the denominator? Also, people should think about whether they are even at risk for shingles. Many people have been vaccinated against shingles and chickenpox. That's important to remember as well."
While studying anomalies and documenting everything in the name of posterity and research is important, it is imperative that we put forward our best critical thinking as well. Using an alarming headline during a pandemic by tapping into a stigmatized fear many have is irresponsible. That's why it's important to read everything before, let's say, tweeting about vaccines giving you herpes.