Drugstores in New York advertise the flu shot, on August 19, 2020 (AFP / Bryan R. Smith)

Seasonal flu vaccines are safe, needed during Covid-19 pandemic

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Instagram posts and a video shared on Facebook claim that the influenza vaccine Fluzone is more deadly than Covid-19. This is false; the posts have misinterpreted data on the immunization, and the Public Health Agency of Canada said flu vaccines are a safe, important means of preventing illness and avoiding additional burdens being placed on the health care system during the coronavirus pandemic.

“Flu shot is 2.4x more deadly than Covid-19,” claims a September 20, 2020 Instagram post. The Canadian account reshared an Instagram post making the identical claim from anti-vaccination advocate Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., who has more than half a million followers.

Screenshot of an Instagram post taken on September 22, 2020

A January 2020 study found that an organization backed by Kennedy was one of two buyers who accounted for more than 50 percent of the anti-vaccine advertising on Facebook.

A similar claim is also found in a five minute video clip from Del Bigtree, another prominent voice in the anti-vaccination movement, which was shared hundreds of times on Facebook.

Screenshot of a Facebook post taken on September 22, 2020

The YouTube account for Bigtree’s program “The HighWire” was terminated in July 2020 after being found to violate the platform’s terms of service, but his Facebook and Instagram pages remain active. 

AFP Fact Check has previously reported on false claims his program made about face masks.

In this video, Bigtree claims, “Fluzone is more deadly than coronavirus,” in a discussion of the product information made available by Sanofi, the maker of Fluzone

Fluzone is approved for use in Canada and the United States for the 2020-2021 flu season and manufacturers are required by regulators to track adverse reactions to vaccines. Sanofi did not respond to AFP requests for comment about the claim.

Bigtree focuses on clinical trials detailed in the package insert which state that 167 deaths were reported within six to eight months post-vaccination and asks, “How is this product on the market? When did we start accepting 0.5 percent death rate in flu shots?”

This is a misinterpretation of the data.

Dr Tara Smith, an epidemiologist and professor at Kent State University, said by email: “Companies carefully collect this data to check for any links to vaccination (or other products), but ‘following’ doesn’t always mean ‘caused by.’”

The insert also said: “These data do not provide evidence for a causal relationship between deaths and vaccination with Fluzone High-Dose.” Bigtree omits this sentence in the screenshots that are in the video.

Andre Gagnon, a spokesman for the Public Health Agency of Canada, told AFP in an email: “Post-marketing surveillance of influenza vaccines in Canada has shown that seasonal influenza vaccines have a safe and stable profile.”

Dr Brian Ward, a professor in the division of experimental medicine at McGill University, agreed. “I’m not aware of any study that shows excess mortality attributable to any flu vaccine,” he said.

Avoiding dual epidemics

More than 9,200 Canadians have died from the novel coronavirus. 

In his September 23 speech opening Parliament, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau cautioned Canadians about a second wave of Covid-19. 

“In our four biggest provinces, the second wave isn’t just starting, it’s already under way,” he said.

“It’s all too likely we won’t be gathering for Thanksgiving (on October 12), but we still have a shot at Christmas.”

Canada’s National Advisory Committee on Immunization strongly encourages people to receive the flu vaccine.

“Influenza vaccine is the most effective way to prevent influenza illness and influenza-related complications, and will be an important component of managing health care system capacity during the next influenza season in the context of an ongoing COVID-19 pandemic,” it said in a statement.

Lawrence Gostin, a professor of health law at Georgetown University, also advocated for the flu vaccine this fall to help keep hospital beds available to Covid-19 patients. 

AFP Fact Check has also debunked the false claim that receiving a flu shot will make you test positive for Covid-19, and that the flu vaccine makes children more vulnerable to the disease.