Misrepresented vaccine safety data. A fabricated connection between vaccines and developmental disorders. Unsubstantiated stories of scary side effects: Anti-vaccine rhetoric has become pervasive in the last few decades. And in recent months, vaccine opponents have falsely linked COVID-19 vaccines to everything from hepatitis outbreaks in children to the nonexistent “vaccine AIDS.” The authorization of COVID-19 vaccines for children under 5 in June incited a surge of misinformation aimed at frightening parents out of vaccinating their young children.
While few people in the U.S. would describe themselves as anti-vaccine, 10 percent of adults polled in 2019 falsely believed vaccines cause autism. Between 2001 and 2019, the percentage of people who think vaccines are more dangerous than the diseases they protect against grew from 6 to 11 percent, while those who don’t feel childhood vaccinations are “very important” grew from 6 to 16 percent.
The pandemic has given anti-vaccine advocates a chance to spread their rhetoric further than ever before, bringing their voices into the mainstream. One key to the movement’s recent success has been using children to exploit the concerns of often well-intentioned parents.
COVID-19 provided people who spread anti-vaccine messaging with an ideal opportunity because, unlike measles or whooping cough, this virus initially seemed to mostly spare children. School closures happened early in the pandemic and continued for most of the 2020-2021 school year. Children were not exposed to COVID-19 at the same rate as adults, giving the false impression that children were essentially immune to the disease. Because COVID-19 was rarely serious in pediatric patients, critics argued that any COVID-19 measures to protect children were going too far.
We now know that children are just as likely as adults to contract COVID-19, with pediatric cases making up 19 percent of all infections. The Omicron wave drove that message home as children were hospitalized and died at higher rates than at any other point in the pandemic. Last year, COVID-19 ranked in the top 10 causes of death in children ages 5 to 14 for all but one month and reached as high as number four in January of this year. COVID-19 is deadlier to young children than rubella, chickenpox, hepatitis A, and rotavirus, diseases that children are routinely vaccinated against. Studies showed that vaccinated adolescents were less likely to contract Omicron or develop serious COVID-19 complications than those who were unvaccinated.
But despite the evidence in favor of vaccines and proof that children aren’t completely safe from COVID-19, vaccine opponents have continued to use children to further their arguments, advocating against masks in schools, opposing vaccines for eligible children, and resisting closures to control outbreaks.
False claims about the supposed dangers of the COVID-19 vaccines for children and adolescents have proliferated online for over a year. Many claims about vaccines are completely fabricated. Late last spring, a debunked news story claiming that a toddler died during the Pfizer vaccine clinical trial began making the rounds on social media. The story was based on a fake report to the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS) that has since been removed. VAERS collects user-submitted reports of medical issues that arise after vaccination. Reports to the system are unverified and are not designed to determine the safety of specific vaccines.
This type of VAERS abuse erupted when the FDA authorized use of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine in kids 12 and over, and a similar flood of fear-mongering occurred when the agency authorized low-dose vaccines for younger children and infants. But the fact remains that 70 percent of adolescents have safely received at least one vaccine dose, most with the same mild side effects experienced by adults.
Evidence shows that the vaccines are very safe. Fewer than 1,000 myocarditis cases have been reported—and only 663 confirmed—among the 27 million children and adolescents who received the mRNA vaccines. The vast majority of cases were mild and quickly resolved.
Still, anti-vaccine and right-wing news sites and social media accounts have spent months loudly broadcasting a potential risk that has affected less than 0.003 percent of vaccinated young people. Many of the same people behind those accounts have ignored that more than 130,000 children and teens have been hospitalized with COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic. The popular anti-vaccine group Children’s Health Defense, with a purported mission to “end childhood health epidemics,” published dozens of articles about myocarditis in the months after the CDC flagged the condition as a potential adverse event. During the same period, the site did not publish a single article about the record numbers of children being hospitalized with COVID-19 or overflowing pediatric ICUs. (Children’s Health Defense did not respond to a request for comment for this article.)
Anti-vaccine scare tactics are successful because they use parents’ understandable concerns about vaccine safety against them. In an interview with NPR, a former anti-vaccine parent noted, “I think sometimes doing nothing is easier because you don’t feel as responsible for the outcome. Where if you give your child a vaccine and they suffer a consequence, that’s your fault.”
For many in the anti-vaccine world, the safety of children is just a specter to stoke fear and sow doubt—and children have paid the price. Over 1,200 children in the U.S. have died and 8,600 developed multisystem inflammatory syndrome (MIS-C), a serious and potentially life-threatening condition, from COVID-19, the vast majority of them unvaccinated. At least 210,000 children have lost parents and primary caregivers to COVID-19. Many of those deaths were preventable. Vaccines wouldn’t have prevented the entirety of the pandemic’s toll, but they would have spared countless children from the devastating, and sometimes irreversible, impact of COVID-19.