Tetanus vaccines can prevent a deadly disease in infants, but a video circulating on social media spreads old, unfounded rumors that discourage vaccination.
Children’s Health Defense — the Robert F. Kennedy Jr. organization with a history of spreading vaccine misinformation — released a video rehash an old claim that casts doubt on tetanus vaccines.
Tetanus affects the nervous system after a bacterium called Clostridium tetani enters the body through an open wound. More than 80% of cases occur in mothers and their babies, according to UNICEF. The infant fatality rate is between 80% and 100%, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The two organizations noted that lack of access to safe childbirth and umbilical cord care contributes to the high infection rates, which are concentrated in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.
The World Health Organization and UNICEF have undertaken various vaccination programs to combat maternal and neonatal tetanus. For example, UNICEF has partnered with Kiwanis International in 2010 in a vaccination campaign which led to a decrease of more than 40% in the number of newborns dying from the disease between 2010 and 2015.
Though there is safe and effective vaccines to prevent tetanus – which are often associated with vaccination against diphtheria and whooping cough, also called whooping cough – their use is declining, as are vaccination ratesgenerally, since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Despite the danger of this disease for infants, Children’s Health Defense made a video and promoted it on social media — suggesting that some tetanus vaccines are actually part of a secret plot to control population growth by rendering women of childbearing age infertile.
But the evidence they present is just a rehash of rumors that have been circulating since the 1990s.
Basically, the theory is that a hormone blocker that allegedly causes infertility has been surreptitiously added to tetanus vaccines. This claim, like many long-standing conspiracy theories, is based on a grain of truth. Researchers had developed a combination contraceptive and tetanus vaccine that was tested in the early 1990s and designed to temporarily prevent pregnancy (it had no permanent effect on fertility). But hormone blockers have never been used in tetanus vaccines available to the public; they have only been used in research.
The vaccine-contraceptive combination was developed by Dr Gursaran Prasad Talwarwho founded the National Institute of Immunology of India and served as its first director, and was tested on 148 volunteers in 1992 and 1993.
This study revealed that a contraceptive vaccine was feasible, but that the formula tested was not effective enough. Only about 80% of women in the trial produced enough antibodies to prevent pregnancy.
“Efficiency above 90% is required and desirable,” Talwar explained in a interview with Nature India in 2010 when questioned about this trial. “So the immunogenicity of the vaccine had to be improved to make it practical for fertility control. All the while we had to deal with misinformed criticism from interested lobbies that the contraceptive vaccine would sterilize women forever.
Vaccine development was put on “low gear” after his retirement from the NII, Talwar said.
But research into a contraceptive vaccine resumed in 2006, although – importantly for Children’s Health Defense’s assertion – tetanus was replaced by E. coli as the carrier associated with the hormone blocker, so the most recent research didn’t even use tetanus.
Talwar had initially chosen to use tetanus when he began his research because the disease so strongly affects women in childbirth, and he attributes the death of his own mother – eight days after her birth – to tetanus.
However, neither its original formulation nor the newer formulation with E. coli was produced or distributed for general use.
But, as we said, the claim that a hormone blocker was added to tetanus vaccines to cause infertility and control population growth was been around for decades and was thoroughly demystified. In fact, the Children’s Health Defense video features the same people who applied in Kenya in 2014. One of the most prominent was Dr Stephen Karanja, who died of COVID-19 in April 2021, about two months after calling COVID-19 vaccines “totally useless.” Karanja had discouraged the use of many vaccines through his organization, the Kenya Catholic Doctors Association.
Thus, Children’s Health Defense is peddling a long-debunked claim about a life-saving vaccine at a time when vaccination rate plateaued and in some cases declined.
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