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Does Talking About Vaccine Reactions Make People Hesitant?

Why we should tone down our horror stories about the COVID vaccine

As more and more people receive the COVID-19 vaccine, many of us have witnessed the joy and relief that comes with this momentous occasion within our networks. Yet aside from expressions of joy and relief, there is another phenomenon that seems to be multiplying: sharing war stories about reactions to the vaccine. Almost every discussion with anyone who has received the vaccine includes some mention of a series of unpleasant side effects such as fever, chills, nausea, headache, body aches, and more. In the online world, one need not look far to find people discussing their 104 fevers and feeling like they had been “hit by a train.” There has even been an increase in the number of people requesting biopsies after discovering swollen lymph nodes following the vaccine. These nodes are a normal sign of the immune system at work and do not indicate cancer in this case.

While it may feel like a fun exercise to tell others, especially those who have not been vaccinated, about your experience with this momentous vaccine, there’s some possibility that this kind of constant sharing of the adverse effects of the various COVID-19 vaccines might be doing harm. While it is too soon to tell empirically whether this is the case, there is reason to believe that this kind of attention on the adverse effects of the vaccines may be striking a nerve with those who are already prone to vaccine hesitancy. The reason this might be the case has to do with a common theme among vaccine-hesitant individuals.

Most of us are familiar with a wide array of anti-vaccine claims, most notably the idea that the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine causes autism in children. In some cases, people worry that vaccines may cause a wide array of devastating illnesses, such as autism, diabetes, epilepsy, and various kinds of nondescript neurological injuries.

Yet there is also a much more mundane, much more common way of thinking that might lead people down the path of vaccine hesitancy. This has to do with a perception that one is particularly “sensitive” to vaccines. In qualitative research conducted by our non-profit Critica, it was very common to find that people who expressed hesitancy about the COVID-19 vaccine also expressed at least one past experience of what they viewed as an “extreme” reaction to a vaccine. In fact, what they described was usually well within reason, including symptoms such as fever, chills, and body aches following a flu vaccine. More often than not, having an experience such as this that was subjectively viewed as a “severe” reaction led the person to then categorize themselves as someone who is particularly sensitive to vaccines and regularly has “extreme” reactions. In many cases, this self-categorization led people to avoid the flu vaccine and also resulted in more skepticism and fear around the COVID-19 vaccine as well.

While at this time we do not have any empirical data to definitively prove that discussions of strong reactions to the COVID-19 vaccine may be leading this subgroup of vaccine-hesitant individuals to be less likely to get the vaccine, it is reasonable to believe that the situation is not helping matters. It does seem to be the case that there is a wider array of more significant symptoms in response to the COVID-19 vaccine as compared to something like the flu vaccine. Most people who receive the flu vaccine experience nothing much more unpleasant than a sore arm the next day. Some people get a mild fever, but most people do not get high fevers, chills, aches, and extreme fatigue. On the other hand, one hears over and over from people who have received the COVID-19 vaccine that they have never felt “that sick” from a vaccine before.

While most people will receive the vaccine, endure whatever reaction they have, and not think much more of it, a sizable and growing portion of the population that is particularly prone to vaccine hesitancy might be harmed by constant discussion of how sick people felt following the vaccine. While it may feel “fun” to have joined the “club” of vaccinated individuals and share war stories about from the vaccine, it’s possible that so much discussion of these reactions is pushing people who already consider themselves “sensitive” to vaccines further underground. It is especially important for government agencies to be certain not to emphasize these adverse effects, to explain them as briefly as possible and not to dwell on them, and to make sure that people understand that the size of the reaction to the vaccine has nothing to do with anything related to its safety. In the meantime, we can all take it upon ourselves to be responsible citizens when it comes to discussing our vaccine experiences with others. If someone asks us how we reacted, perhaps we can simply say: “I felt a bit sick for a day but I’m so fortunate to be protected against this terrible illness.” That is, after all, the truth of the matter.

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