How a database on vaccine side effects sowed doubt about vaccination

On Facebook, videos of people reading lists of reported side-effects have gone viral. Children’s Health Defense, an organization headed by Robert F. Kennedy Jr., one of the internet’s most influential anti-vaxxers, regularly touts VAERS statistics in its daily newsletter, and has encouraged its readers to report their own side effects.

It doesn’t take much to twist facts out of context. The Children’s Health Defense typically cites accurate statistics from the VAERS database in misleading newsletter headlines. But headlines often omit or misrepresent context, touting the numbers as proof of harmful vaccine side effects when they are nothing of the sort.

“VAERS Covid Vaccine Data Show Surge in Reports of Serious Injuries, as 5-Year-Olds Start Getting Shots,” read one earlier this month. “VAERS Reports of Deaths After Covid Near 16,000,” read another.

The statistic on the number of deaths in VAERS, for example, also fails to clarify that someone dying after vaccination does not mean the vaccine actually caused their death. (There is also suspicion that anti-vaccine activists have purposely inflated the number of reports in the database.)