A man receives the flu vaccine (AFP / Nicholas Kamm)

Misinformation targets New Jersey flu vaccine mandate plan

Copyright AFP 2017-2020. All rights reserved.

Instagram posts opposing a proposed New Jersey law to mandate the influenza vaccine for students claim that the immunization raises one’s risk of coronavirus infection. Large studies in the US and Canada found no evidence that flu shots increase the odds of contracting a coronavirus, and public health agencies recommend the inoculation to help prevent serious illness, as well as to avoid additional burdens on health care systems during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“A January 2020 study in Science Direct shows that flu shots actually increase the risk of coronavirus infection by 36%,” claims a September 9, 2020 Instagram post.

Screenshot of an Instagram post taken on October 5, 2020

The same claim was reposted on Instagram here and here and on Facebook here and here by accounts pushing for action against New Jersey bill A4576.

The bill, which would require children to be annually vaccinated for influenza in order to enroll at public and private schools, is sponsored by Democratic legislators Herb Conaway Jr, Andrew Zwicker and Mila Jasey.

Zwicker said by phone that there is urgency behind the bill as public health officials in New Jersey have warned of the need to increase the number of people receiving flu vaccines during the pandemic, which has killed more than 14,300 people in his state. 

“We already mandate younger children getting a flu shot. All this bill does is increase the age range,” he said.

The bill is not yet up for a vote, but he said the issue is emotionally charged, and risks falling victim to “misinformation about the dangers of vaccination.” 

One September protest against the measure attracted hundreds of parents and children.

Pentagon study

The Science Direct study referenced in the posts was published in January by Greg Wolff of the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Branch. The study examined Department of Defense personnel during the 2017-2018 flu season -- before the appearance of the novel coronavirus -- and claimed an association between flu vaccination and risk of seasonal coronaviruses. 

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) explained that the study “was later found to be incorrect.”

Danuta Skowronski, the principal investigator at the British Columbia Center for Disease Control (BCCDC) raised issues with Wolff’s study. 

Skowronski’s team helped develop test-negative design, a methodology used worldwide to monitor how well the influenza vaccine protects. 

“Not only did we not confirm his findings, we also highlighted methodological issues with the way in which Wolff conducted his analyses by test-negative design in exploring the phenomenon,” she said in an email referencing a May 2020 study that included thousands of people over multiple flu seasons in Canada.

Skowrownski confirmed to AFP by phone, “We saw no association in children nor in adults between the receipt of influenza vaccine and coronavirus risk.”

Similarly, a 2013 study conducted in the US state of Wisconsin covering six flu seasons and including more than 3,000 patients found: “Influenza vaccination was not associated with detection of noninfluenza respiratory viruses.”

This is not the first time Wolff’s study was misused in social media posts. 

In April 2020, the study was highlighted by the non-profit, anti-vaccine advocacy organization Children's Health Defense and then appeared in misleading Instagram posts, including here and here.

Screenshot of an Instagram post taken on October 5, 2020

Wolff did not respond to AFP’s request for comment. 

In June 2020, he wrote a letter to the editor of the journal about his findings saying, “Results from this study DO NOT support the anti-vaccination viewpoint of avoiding seasonal influenza vaccination, and in fact should be interpreted in the opposite manner, since significant protection against influenza was associated with vaccination receipt.”

AFP Fact Check previously debunked a variation of this claim as part of an investigation into the misleading film “Plandemic.”

Flu shot recommended

More than 211,000 Americans have died from the novel coronavirus. 

The CDC said: “Getting a flu vaccine is more important than ever during 2020-2021 to protect yourself and the people around you from flu, and to help reduce the strain on healthcare systems responding to the Covid-19 pandemic.”

The flu shot is a regular target of disinformation. AFP Fact Check has also debunked the false claim that the influenza vaccine contains coronaviruses and the false claim that receiving a flu shot will make you test positive for Covid-19.

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