For more than a decade, misinformation has hindered uptake of the vaccine against human papillomavirus (HPV), the common sexually transmitted infection that can cause cervical cancer in women. Today, outlets historically dedicated to misinformation around the HPV vaccine are pivoting to Covid-19, targeting those who are already vaccine hesitant.
The HPV vaccine is safe and more than 99% effective at preventing cervical cancer caused by high-risk strains. But emotive misinformation that the jab has caused chronic health issues has damaged HPV vaccine campaigns in Ireland, the US, Japan and Denmark.
Power of the personal
Personal stories are the centerpiece of such emotion-driven misinformation. The HPV Vaccine Side Effects website, created in November 2019 by an anonymous parent who says their son’s health problems were caused by the HPV vaccine, now shares unevidenced testimonials of Covid-19 vaccine side effects, illustrating them on a world map. The map has been shared more than 3,000 times on Facebook, according to CrowdTangle, and has emerged in Reddit’s conspiracy subreddit, where users likened the Covid-19 vaccines to “poison.”
The parent’s posts on HPV Vaccine Side Effects have been shared by notable anti-vaccine communities, including The Refusers (98,000-plus followers), SANEVAX (nearly 10,000 followers) and the UK Association of HPV Vaccine Injured Daughters (7,800-plus followers).
Google has flagged the HPV Vaccine Side Effects website as “dangerous and derogatory.”
One story by the owner of Vaccine Side Effects was spotlighted by @gardasilgirls, a prominent Instagram account against Gardasil, one of the main HPV vaccines. With more than 14,100 followers and run by the father of a woman who claims she was severely injured by the vaccine, the account promises to bring girls “injured by Gardasil together to share their stories,” featuring a mix of personal testimonies.
Similarly, anti-vaccine website Children’s Health Defense, which has more than 183,000 Instagram followers, has used personal stories to undermine readers’ trust in content about Gardasil. The site recently shifted to Covid-19 vaccines.
One article from September, which documents a lawsuit filed by a man who alleges the HPV vaccine injured him, was shared more than 2,200 times on Facebook, including by the site’s founder, prominent anti-vaccine conspiracy theorist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. The piece features a jarring photo comparison of the man purportedly before and after vaccination. In the first photo, he is healthy and youthful; in the second, he is in a wheelchair.
These personal stories of alleged side effects are central to anti-vaccine misinformation posted on the site. Two articles this month from Children’s Health Defense, attracting at least 8,300 Facebook shares collectively, featured accounts of people the group claims died after receiving Covid-19 vaccines.
Regret, an abbreviation of “Reactions and Effects of Gardasil Resulting in Extreme Trauma,” was founded by parents in Ireland who claim that their children were injured by the HPV vaccine. The group has more than 26,000 followers on Facebook, where it links children’s chronic illnesses to the jab.
Historically, the group shares content from vaccine-hesitant sites, including Vaccine Reaction, as well as accounts of alleged side effects accompanied by attention-grabbing personal photos. The site has recently posted content about Covid-19 vaccines. In a statement to the Irish Times, the group said it had concerns that Covid-19 vaccines in development did not meet safety criteria.
“When you read those accounts, it’s heartbreaking,” said Silvia Sommariva, a doctoral candidate at the University of South Florida College of Public Health and an HPV vaccine expert, referring to both HPV and Covid-19 vaccines. But genuine cases of medical conditions linked to the HPV vaccine are in “small percentages,” she added. Similarly, severe reactions to Covid-19 vaccines are rare; those who have suffered them recovered.
Despite the lack of evidence to support direct causal links between the vaccines and chronic health conditions, first-person stories can be tough to beat with facts. They’re difficult to disprove and they exploit people’s fear, tapping into their emotions more than debunks can.
By sharing personal stories, vaccine-hesitant sources can jeopardize public trust — and potentially vaccine uptake — whether it comes to HPV or Covid-19.