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Psychological Risks with COVID-19 Vaccines

Reports about allergic reactions to COVID-19 vaccines will undoubtedly cause anxiety in people. Robert E. Bartholomew & Kate MacKrill remind us that, if history is a guide — and given the large number of people to be vaccinated — a mass anxiety event is not improbable.

The news media have an important role to play in the current race to vaccinate enough people in the United States and around the world, so that we can reach the all-important goal of attaining herd immunity — the key threshold whereby a sufficient number of people have been inoculated and are immune to infection. When that tipping point is reached, person to person infection is expected to become much less likely. By current projections, American immunologist Dr. Anthony Fauci projects that the United States could reach the early stages of herd immunity by late March, 2021.1 The biggest impediment to attaining it is what the World Health Organization describes as “vaccine hesitancy” — the reluctance of people to get vaccinated. Even before the pandemic, the WHO was warning that vaccine hesitancy was a significant threat to world health.2

A major problem in maintaining public confidence in the safety of the vaccines that are being rolled out are reports of allergic reactions in health care workers shortly after being inoculated. The first reports appeared in England and involved two persons with a history of allergic reactions. More recently, two patients in Alaska were affected and more can be expected. Health authorities have been quick to point out that none of these cases were life-threatening.

These incidents will undoubtedly give some people pause in whether or not to take the vaccine. Now there are reports that four people in the Pfizer-BioNTech trial and three in the Moderna trial developed … temporary facial paralysis or weakness. Known as Bell’s palsy, the condition is more common than many people think and it’s usually not serious, although it may take several weeks or in rare cases, months to resolve. Exposure to viruses are known to be a trigger, as the nerve that controls muscle contractions on one side of the face becomes inflamed.3

It is well-known within the medical community that during mass inoculation campaigns, you can expect to see a relatively small number of individual anxiety reactions in nervous patients. Common symptoms include fainting, dizziness, nausea, and breathlessness. What is less known is the likelihood of a collective anxiety event. Most commonly referred to as mass psychogenic illness, outbreaks during immunization campaigns are well-known. Since 1992, there have been no less than 12 major episodes that have been written up in medical journals.

If an event were to occur, the media needs to react with caution and avoid sensational headlines and reporting. This could prove to be challenging because the news media is driven by a business model that thrives on clicks and views. If it bleeds, it leads. Another problem facing authorities will be the historical reaction to similar outbreaks, which are usually met with anger and disbelief. In today’s social media age, a single psychogenic outbreak could quickly undermine global confidence in the safety of different COVID-19 vaccines.

Outbreaks of mass psychogenic illness are often dramatic and can have lasting ramifications. In May 2007, 720 girls attending a school in Melbourne, Australia, received the first of three inoculations for the Human papillomavirus (HPV). Two hours later, 26 of the girls were seen by the school nurse for an array of complaints including nausea, headache, dizziness, heart palpitations, muscle weakness, hyperventilation, and fainting. Four were rushed to a nearby children’s hospital where they quickly recovered.4

The impact of the event was swift even though the psychological nature was quickly determined. Firstly, in response to the news of a “mystery illness,” the share market value of the firm making the vaccine lost nearly $1 billion dollars (AUS).5 Secondly, the event triggered a flurry of negative media reports questioning the safety of the vaccine and eroding public confidence. As a commentary in The Age (Melbourne) newspaper asked: “Why are we experimenting with drugs on girls?”6 Similar clusters of psychogenic illness have resulted in significant declines in girls lining up to receive the HPV vaccine and placing them at undue risk for cervical cancer.7

The rush to create a safe and effective vaccine to counter COVID-19 in less than a year is nothing short of miraculous. It would be a shame if efforts to reach herd immunity were to be undermined by a phenomenon that has been well documented by social scientists and continues to foster controversy — mostly due to the sigma that is attached to it. END

About the Authors

Robert E. Bartholomew is an Honorary Senior Lecturer in the Department of Psychological Medicine at the University of Auckland in New Zealand. He has written numerous books on the margins of science covering UFOs, haunted houses, Bigfoot, lake monsters — all from a perspective of mainstream science. He has lived with the Malay people in Malaysia, and Aborigines in Central Australia. He is the co-author of 2 seminal books: Outbreak! The Encyclopedia of Extraordinary Social Behavior with Hilary Evans (Anomalist Books, 2009), and Havana Syndrome with Robert W. Baloh (Copernicus Books, 2020).

Kate MacKrill is a doctoral student in Health Psychology at Auckland University. Her PhD. thesis examines the power of the nocebo effect.

  1. Booker, Brakkton. 2020. “Fauci Predicts U.S. Could See Signs Of Herd Immunity By Late March Or Early April.” National Public Radio, December 15.
  2. World Health Organization. 2019. “Ten Threats to Global Health in 2019.”
  3. Rodriguez, Adrianna. 2020. “COVID-19 Vaccine Trials Report Cases of Brief Facial Paralysis. That’s not as Scary as it Sounds.” USA Today, December 15.
  4. Buttery, Jim, Simon Madin, Nibel Crawford, Sonja Elia, Sophie La Vincente, Sarah Hanieh, Lindsay Smith, and Bruce Bolam. 2008. “Mass Psychogenic Response to Human Papillomavirus Vaccination.” Medical Journal of Australia; 189: 261–262.
  5. Chapman S, MacKenzie R. 2007. “Fainting schoolgirls 5 wipe $A1bn off market value of Gardasil producer.” British Medical Journal; 334: 1195.
  6. Reist, Melinda and Renate Klein. 2007. “Why are we Experimenting with Drugs on Girls?” The Age, May 25.
  7. Simas, Clarissa, Nubia Munoz, Leonardo Arregoces, and Heidi Larson. 2019. “HPV Vaccine Confidence and Cases of Mass Psychogenic Illness following Immunization in Carmen de Bolivar, Colombia.” Human Vaccines & Immunotherapeutics; 15(1): 163–166.

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