Video Revives Old, Debunked Rumors About Tetanus Vaccines

SciCheck Digest

Tetanus vaccines can prevent deadly disease in infants, but a video circulating on social media is spreading old, unfounded rumors that discourage immunization.

Full Story

Children’s Health Defense — Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s organization with a history of spreading vaccine disinformation — has released a video rehashing an old claim that casts doubt on tetanus vaccines.

Tetanus affects the nervous system after a bacteria 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 fatality rate for infants is between 80% and 100%, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Both organizations noted that lack of access to hygienic delivery and umbilical cord care contributes to high rates of infection, which is concentrated in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.

The World Health Organization and UNICEF have undertaken several vaccination programs to address maternal and neonatal tetanus. For example, UNICEF partnered with Kiwanis International in 2010 in a vaccination effort that resulted in more than a 40% decrease in the number of newborns dying of the disease between 2010 and 2015.

Although there are safe and effective vaccines to prevent tetanus — which are often paired with immunization for diphtheria and pertussis, also called whooping cough — their use has been falling, as have vaccination rates, generally, since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

Despite the danger of this disease for infants, Children’s Health Defense has made a video — and promoted it on social media — suggesting that some tetanus vaccines are actually part of a covert plot to control population growth by rendering women of childbearing age infertile.

But the evidence they present is just a reprise of rumors that have been around since the 1990s.

Basically, the theory is that a hormone blocker that would cause infertility had 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 was designed to prevent pregnancies temporarily (it did not have a permanent effect on fertility). But hormone blockers have never been used in tetanus vaccines available to the public; they’ve only been used in research.

The vaccine and contraceptive combination was developed by Dr. Gursaran Prasad Talwar, who founded India’s National Institute of Immunology and served as its first director, and was tested on 148 volunteers in 1992 and 1993.

That study found that a birth control vaccine was feasible, but the tested formula wasn’t effective enough. Only about 80% of women in the trial produced enough antibodies to prevent pregnancy.

“Efficacy above 90% is required and desirable,” Talwar explained in an interview with Nature India in 2010 when he was asked about that trial. “Thus, immunogenicity of the vaccine had to be improved to make it practicable for fertility control. All the while we had to contend with ill-informed criticism from interested lobbies that the birth control vaccine will sterilize women forever.”

Development of the vaccine was put into “low gear” after he retired from NII, Talwar said.

But research on a birth control vaccine revived in 2006, although — importantly for Children’s Health Defense’s claim — tetanus had been replaced with E. coli as the vehicle paired 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 heavily affects women in childbirth, and he attributes his own mother’s death — eight days after he was born — to tetanus.

Regardless, neither his original formulation nor the more recent formulation with E. coli has been 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 has been circulating for decades and has been thoroughly debunked. In fact, the Children’s Health Defense video features the same people who made the claim 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 unnecessary.” Karanja had discouraged the use of many vaccines through his organization, the Kenya Catholic Doctors Association.

So, Children’s Health Defense is peddling a long-debunked claim about a life-saving vaccine in a time when vaccination rates have plateaued and, in some cases, declined.

Editor’s note: FactCheck.org is one of several organizations working with Facebook to debunk misinformation shared on social media. Our previous stories can be found here. Facebook has no control over our editorial content.

Sources

UNICEF. “A Huge Milestone for Moms and Babies.” 28 Apr 2017.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Why CDC is Working to Prevent Global Tetanus. 21 Mar 2022.

Vos, Theo, et al. “Global burden of 369 diseases and injuries in 204 countries and territories, 1990–2019: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2019.” The Lancet. 17 Oct 2020.

Causey, Kate, et al. “Estimating global and regional disruptions to routine childhood vaccine coverage during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020: a modelling study.” The Lancet. 7 Aug 2021.

Talwar, Gursaran Prasad, et al. “A vaccine that prevents pregnancy in women.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. Aug 1994.

Jayaraman, K. S. “Contraceptive vaccine bounces back.” Nature India. 29 Jul 2010.

Mukerjee, Madhusree. “Profile: Gursaran Prasad Talwar, Pushing the Envelope for Vaccines.” Scientific American. Jul 1996.

World Health Organization. Press release. “REPORTS OF CONTAMINATED TETANUS TOXOID VACCINE ARE FALSE, SAYS WHO.” 19 Jul 1995.

Haelle, Tara. “A Resurrected Vaccine Fear Puts Kenyan Infants At Risk.” Forbes. 17 Nov 2014.

Bhardwaj, Vinayak. “ANALYSIS: Why does an old, false claim about tetanus vaccine safety refuse to die?” Africa Check. 26 May 2016.

Onyango, Emmanuel. “Stephen Karanja: Kenyan anti-vaccine doctor dies from Covid-19.” BBC. 30 Apr 2021.

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