Mass hysteria or mass psychogenic illness: There's something about mass vaccination campaigns that sets off people reporting "vaccine injuries". It happened in the African countries of Namibia and Lesotho in the last 12 months (see below) but it has also happened in elsewhere around the world. Here are a few examples:
In the African country of Chad, in 2013, there were reports of widespread illness following immunization with a meningitis vaccine, MenAfriVac®. A group of independent experts investigated, and reported that the children fell victim to a well-known syndrome, mass psychogenic illness. MenAfriVac® did not cause the symptoms.
There is the ever-popular lie that "maternal tetanus vaccines are a secret sterilization program", most recently promoted in 2014 after a Kenyan mass vaccination drive. The US organization MaterCare spread the story, but did little to retract it when it was proven false. For thorough debunkings: see Tom Whipple covers the history of the HCG-laced tetanus vaccine lie at The Catholic Herald, in The unkillable Catholic vaccination conspiracy; Genevieve Holmes at Rational Catholic; David Gorski at Science-Based Medicine; Orac Knows at Respectful Insolence; Dr. Jen Gunter debunks Kelley Brogan's mendacious claims; and Snopes.
In 2011, female children in a small New York town, LeRoy, started exhibiting neurological symptoms. Some blamed the children's symptoms on vaccines, but the NY state Health Department review pointed out that most of the children's vaccines were years in the past. Neurologist Steven Novella made a convincing case that the children were suffering from mass psychogenic illness. A peer reviewed article makes the case for social media spreading contagion.
This kind of contagious thinking may be operating in two African countries... or just be reported in the US by people opposed to eliminating vaccine-preventable diseases (that is, anti-vaccine activists).
In 2016, the African country of Namibia responded to ongoing measles and rubella outbreaks by mounting a mass vaccination campaign for people aged 9 months to 39 years, including innovative outreach to remote communities. The campaign provided a first dose of vaccine for those born after 2012, a second dose of vaccine for older persons. Then there was some buzz in anti-vaccine social media accounts that this campaign had resulted in a large number of deaths. This turned out to be (as usual) inaccurate. The reporting in the Namibia press was a little confusing. In August, 2016, there was an article in "Parents Sue Over Vaccine Deaths", in which it was reported that in the 10-year span since 2006, 21 babies died after receiving the vaccines given in infancy. Below is the WHO table of vaccines recommended by Namibia (click to enlarge, or refer to the link). In the Namibian press, there seems to have been some confounding of deaths from the vaccines given in early infancy (Bacille Calmette-Guérin vaccine, Oral polio vaccine, a pentavalent vaccine against Diphtheria, Tetanus, Pertussis, Haemophilus influenzae (Hib) and Hepatitis B, and a rotavirus vaccine, given at 6, 10, and 14 weeks), with the 2016 measles-rubella campaign, which were not given to very young infants but those 9 months and above.
deaths in children following immunisation in Namibia were first reported in 2006; and from that time, 21 children have suffered “complications of vaccinations and subsequent death”. As sad as it may seem, over the period of 10 years, it comes to two deaths out of thousands immunised per year, making it extremely less likely that the deaths were a direct result of the vaccination, but most probably a random and coincidental event.
Of the seven alleged vaccine-related deaths from vaccine 2014-2016 in Namibia, two are alleged to be from the 2016 measles-rubella campaign. However, there is reasonable doubt that vaccines caused both deaths:
Harare-based WHO vaccines consultant Jain Sujeet [ed: Sujeet Jain of WHO], who is in Namibia to assist with investigations, said one of the infant deaths reportedly linked to the measles and rubella vaccination might be a result of bacterial meningitis.
Another African country, Lesotho, has also been suffering epidemics of measles and rubella. (Size note: Lesotho is about the size of San Bernardino County, California, with roughly the same population density. However, the per capita income for San Bernardino is about $16,900; while it is about $2,200 for Lesotho.) In Lesotho, a mass vaccination campaign was launched February 13 2017, to last until February 24. The campaign included: immunizing against measles, rubella and polio, deworming, and vitamin A supplementation. Lesotho is a monarchy and the campaign was launched by Her Majesty Queen 'Masenate Mohato Bereng Seeiso. Two other important facts about Lesotho: first, the burden of AIDS: The percentage of adults living with HIV/AIDS in Lesotho is 23.10% while in The United States it is 0.60%. Second the number of deaths of infants under one year old in a given year per 1,000 live births in Lesotho is 50.48 while in The United States it is 6.17.
On April 6, 2017, the Lesotho Times reported that:
The Ministry of Health embarked on a nationwide measles and rubella vaccination campaign in February targeting children aged from 9 months to 14 years. The 14-day campaign immunised 533,546 children which represented 79 percent of the targeted children.
However, hundreds of parents have since claimed their children were adversely affected by the vaccines with side-effects that include severe body rashes, high fever and coughing.
Four children have reportedly died from the side effects, with the latest dying at Queen ‘Mamohato Memorial Hospital a week ago. However, there has not yet been any postmortem confirming the virus as the cause of death.
I am more than a little dubious about the quality of the Lesotho Times article, written by Pascalinah Kabi, as it also included the claim that the 2016 Namibia immunization campaign "killed tens of children in Namibia", which as we have seen is a false claim.
WHO's Sujeet Jain investigated the Namibia vaccine issues, and is also involved with the Lesotho investigation. He is quoted as saying "looking into the possibility that some of the children scared of injections would have anxiety problems" -- this gets back to the issue of mass psychogenic illness.
Now I am about to present an blunt and painful exposition of infant mortality in low-resource countries, specifically about the numbers of Lesotho children who might be expected to die in any one time period. In a private message, a public health professional laid out the following chilling, but accurate calculations (I have paraphrased the statements):
- In Lesotho, of 1,000 live births, 70 babies die before their first birthday
- Of those 1,000 live births, an additional 20-30 die before their 5th birthday (under 5 mortality is 90-100 per 1,000 live births)
- Assuming that the age distribution of the Lesotho children vaccinated was equal, that means that of the 533,000 Lesotho children vaccinated in the 2017 campaign:
- of the 533,000 kids vaccinated, about 10,000 were under 12 months of age; given the mortality rate, about 700 would die in a year, therefore 60 or so in a given month
- Of the surviving children, approximately 300 would also be expected to die, so (tragically) there would be about 200 children between 9 months and 5 years of age who die in Lesotho in every two week period. The vaccine campaign lasted two weeks. It pains me immensely to say this, but how can we say that the four children who died during this campaign are a change in the rate of expected deaths?
Any child's death is heartbreaking. Remember that deaths and injuries from vaccine-preventable diseases (VPDs) are far, far, far more likely than from vaccines, even in low-resource countries. True vaccine injuries are extremely rare.