One of the most pernicious myths of the anti-vaxxers is the claim that post-vaccination mortality is a rampant “epidemic.” Their evidence of such an issue with vaccines is non-existent, but it continues to be pushed by notable anti-vaccine missionaries like Del Bigtree and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.
The anti-vaxxer world seems to use anecdotes and VAERS (Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System) to create fear, uncertainty, and doubt about vaccines by claiming that vaccines kill children. Well, anecdotes do not equal data (they are filled with bias) and dumpster-diving into VAERS which does not establish correlation, let alone causation.
In other words, the anti-vaccine world relies on bad data to make claims about post-vaccination mortality.
But is there a plague of vaccine-related deaths across the world? I have long stated that there have been few, if any, documented post-vaccination deaths over the past 40 years. I determined that by attempting to search for post-vaccination mortality reported in the peer-reviewed literature, but trying to prove a negative is difficult.
But I’m just a science blogger who hasn’t published an article in years, so even the best scientific skeptic amongst you will say, “OK, you old feathered dinosaur, I trust you, but I need something more to deal with these anti-vaxxers.”
Well, this old feathered dinosaur happens to agree. Lucky for us, a group of researchers did some investigative research a few years ago to determine if there were any cases of post-vaccination mortality that have been documented. And what they found was – not so much.
Post-vaccination mortality paper
In an article entitled, “Deaths following vaccination: What does the evidence show?,” published in Vaccine in 2015 by Elaine R Miller, MPH, et al., at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They did a review of the literature and other sources since the mid-1980s to see if there were any vaccine-related deaths since then. The researchers found less than 10 deaths that were conclusively linked to vaccines after billions of doses – and even those may have resulted from improper vaccinations.
But before we look at Miller’s paper, let’s review what has also been written about post-vaccine mortality.
In 1994, the prestigious Institute of Medicine (IOM), now known as the National Academy of Medicine, reviewed VAERS-reported deaths after childhood vaccinations in the early 1990s. Among reports that had an adequate medical follow-up, the IOM concluded that the vast majority of the reported deaths were coincidental, but not causally-related, to vaccination.
IOM found precisely one death due to a vaccine-strain viral infection – a 3-month-old infant died after receiving the oral polio vaccine, which is no longer available in the USA (and most other developed countries).
Another study found that among VAERS death reports, a higher percent of the infants had low birth weight than in the general US population (16.8% vs. 7.2%) – it is well known that lower birth weight infants are known to have higher mortality rates during the first 2 years of life, irrespective of vaccination status.
ER Miller et al. wrote that:
Multiple other published reviews of VAERS data for specific vaccines and vaccine types have found no concerning patterns that would suggest a causal relationship between vaccination and deaths (see citations 21-26 in her paper).
A 2013 study published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine reviewed health information from over 13 million (yes million) vaccinated individuals and compared the causes of death in the vaccinated group to the general US population. The one- or two-month post-vaccination mortality rate was lower than that of the general US population, and the causes of death were similar.
This study, as opposed to VAERS or your uncle’s sister’s hairdresser’s mother’s anecdote, is very convincing evidence that vaccines are not linked to an increased risk of death.
So there really have been some robust reviews of the VAERS data by real scientists and public health researchers, and they have been hard-pressed to find any causal link between vaccines and deaths.
ER Miller et al. also looked at more recent published information about post-vaccination mortality and found very little. Here is what they did find:
Anaphylaxis after vaccination
The researchers looked at whether anaphylaxis, a serious allergic reaction, was related to vaccines. It is extremely rare, and it can be fatal. They wrote:
Many vaccines have been determined to rarely cause anaphylaxis. The risk of anaphylaxis is less than two cases per million doses of vaccines administered to children and adolescents. While anaphylaxis is serious and can be fatal, death and other complications can be prevented with rapid treatment using effective medications including epinephrine, corticosteroids and beta-agonists. A 10-year review of claims to the US National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program noted five cases of death from anaphylaxis after vaccinations.
Another study published in 2003 using electronic health record databases found that after 7,644,049 doses of vaccination in children and adolescents, there were five possible cases of vaccine associated anaphylaxis and none resulted in death. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) recommends screening patients for contraindications and precautions, including allergy history, prior to vaccination. However, since anaphylaxis following vaccination is not always predictable or preventable, ACIP also recommends that healthcare providers be prepared to treat medical emergencies including anaphylaxis if they occur.
Severely immunocompromised people receiving live attenuated vaccines
Live vaccines are contraindicated for individuals who have a weakened or compromised immune system. Two immunocompromised children died after receiving the varicella vaccine, and another five similar individuals died after receiving the measles vaccine. Both of these vaccines have live viruses and are contraindicated for these children.
Intussusception after rotavirus vaccine
Intussusception in children is a rare medical condition in which the bowel folds in, or telescopes, on itself. It mostly resolves itself, but if it is complicated, it might require further medical treatment or surgery to treat. In very rare circumstances, it can lead to death, less than 1% of the time in developed. countries.
According to Miller et al.:
RotaShield®, the first licensed rotavirus vaccine, was withdrawn from use in 1999 after a greater than expected number of reports of intussusception were detected in post-marketing surveillance . The attributable risk of intussusception was estimated to be one case for every 4,670 to 9,474 infants vaccinated  and one intussusception death after RotaShield® was reported in the literature.
One study estimated that among a hypothetical 4.3 million US birth cohort followed to age 5 years, currently licensed rotavirus vaccines prevent 14 deaths, more than 53,000 hospitalizations, and more than 169,000 emergency room visits. On the other hand, the vaccines are estimated to result in approximately 0.2 deaths, 45 hospitalizations, and 13 short stay visits from vaccine-associated intussusception in the same cohort.
In other words, the benefits of the vaccine far exceed the estimated < 1 death from the vaccine.
Guillain–Barré syndrome and H1N1 vaccines
Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS) is a very rare disorder in which a person’s own immune system damages peripheral nerve cells, causing muscle weakness and sometimes paralysis. Most people recover fully from the GBS, although some may have permanent nerve damage.
The causes of GBS is not clear, but the risk increases with bacterial or viral infections, like influenza.
Another study examined health records from 2000-2009 and found 38 cases of GBS within six weeks of individuals receiving the seasonal flu vaccine. This is out of around 700 million doses given at the time. The researchers found two deaths, neither of which exhibited a causal association with the vaccine.
Syncope (fainting) after vaccination leading to head trauma and death
It has been well established that syncope, or fainting, occurs after any procedure that involves a needle, including vaccination. People are afraid of needles (although I love watching a blood collection needle entering my vein). And, of course, fainting can lead to head trauma and death just because of the suddenness of the fall.
However, Miller et al. report that:
Syncope is an acute event that typically occurs within 15 minutes of vaccination, and the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices suggests a 15-minute observation period after vaccination, especially if the patient is an adolescent.
The vaccine does not cause the syncope, it is the needle. Nevertheless, there are strong recommendations to observe certain patients post-vaccination just to be sure it doesn’t happen and to prevent further harm if it does happen.
Vaccine-associated paralytic poliomyelitis
Vaccine-associated paralytic poliomyelitis is a very rare adverse event associated with the oral polio vaccine, which is not used in most of the developed world, including the USA. Again, Miller et al. researched this issue and found:
A recent review puts the risk of VAPP (Vaccine-associated paralytic poliomyelitis) at around 4.7 cases per million births with an estimated 498 cases annually worldwide. VAPP can result in death, but this is rare. In the United States, from 1980–1989 there were 80 VAPP cases reported and among these reported cases, two patients (3%) died within 60 days after onset of paralysis.
Although the risk of post-vaccination mortality is not quite zero, as I thought, it is nearly zero. There may be less than 10 deaths from vaccines over the past 30 or 40 years, and many of those were from vaccinations of immunocompromised individuals who should not be receiving live vaccines.
But what we can take from this review is that, despite the claims of the anti-vaccine world, the risk of death from vaccines is so small that it is almost immeasurable. And compared to the high risk from the diseases these vaccines prevent, it’s nearly a no-brainer – vaccines save lives, they don’t take them.
So don’t buy into that vaccines cause death trope – there is no science that supports that.
- Bohlke K, Davis RL, Marcy SM, Braun MM, DeStefano F, Black SB, Mullooly JP, Thompson RS; Vaccine Safety Datalink Team. Risk of anaphylaxis after vaccination of children and adolescents. Pediatrics. 2003 Oct;112(4):815-20. doi: 10.1542/peds.112.4.815. PMID: 14523172.
- Desai R, Cortese MM, Meltzer MI, Shankar M, Tate JE, Yen C, Patel MM, Parashar UD. Potential intussusception risk versus benefits of rotavirus vaccination in the United States. Pediatr Infect Dis J. 2013 Jan;32(1):1-7. doi: 10.1097/INF.0b013e318270362c. PMID: 22929172; PMCID: PMC5714269.
- Johann-Liang R, Josephs S, Dreskin SC. Analysis of anaphylaxis cases after vaccination: 10-year review from the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program. Ann Allergy Asthma Immunol. 2011 May;106(5):440-3. doi: 10.1016/j.anai.2011.01.014. Epub 2011 Feb 24. PMID: 21530879.
- McCarthy NL, Weintraub E, Vellozzi C, Duffy J, Gee J, Donahue JG, Jackson ML, Lee GM, Glanz J, Baxter R, Lugg MM, Naleway A, Omer SB, Nakasato C, Vazquez-Benitez G, DeStefano F. Mortality rates and cause-of-death patterns in a vaccinated population. Am J Prev Med. 2013 Jul;45(1):91-97. doi: 10.1016/j.amepre.2013.02.020. PMID: 23790993.
- Miller ER, Moro PL, Cano M, Shimabukuro TT. Deaths following vaccination: What does the evidence show? Vaccine. 2015 Jun 26;33(29):3288-92. doi: 10.1016/j.vaccine.2015.05.023. Epub 2015 May 23. PMID: 26004568; PMCID: PMC4599698.
- Platt LR, Estívariz CF, Sutter RW. Vaccine-associated paralytic poliomyelitis: a review of the epidemiology and estimation of the global burden. J Infect Dis. 2014 Nov 1;210 Suppl 1:S380-9. doi: 10.1093/infdis/jiu184. PMID: 25316859.
- Shui IM, Rett MD, Weintraub E, Marcy M, Amato AA, Sheikh SI, Ho D, Lee GM, Yih WK; Vaccine Safety Datalink Research Team. Guillain-Barré syndrome incidence in a large United States cohort (2000-2009). Neuroepidemiology. 2012;39(2):109-15. doi: 10.1159/000339248. Epub 2012 Jul 28. PMID: 22846726.
- Silvers LE, Ellenberg SS, Wise RP, Varricchio FE, Mootrey GT, Salive ME. The epidemiology of fatalities reported to the vaccine adverse event reporting system 1990-1997. Pharmacoepidemiol Drug Saf. 2001 Jun-Jul;10(4):279-85. doi: 10.1002/pds.619. PMID: 11760487.
- Stratton KR, Howe CJ, Johnston RB, editors. Institute of Medicine. Adverse Events Associated with Childhood Vaccines: Evidence Bearing on Causality. Washington, DC: National Academies Press; 1994.
- Stratton K, Ford A, Rusch E, Clayton EW, editors. Institute of Medicine. Adverse Effects of Vaccines: Evidence and Causality. Washington DC: National Academies Press; 2011.
- Vellozzi C, Iqbal S, Stewart B, Tokars J, DeStefano F. Cumulative risk of Guillain-Barré syndrome among vaccinated and unvaccinated populations during the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic. Am J Public Health. 2014 Apr;104(4):696-701. doi: 10.2105/AJPH.2013.301651. Epub 2014 Feb 13. PMID: 24524517; PMCID: PMC4025712.
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