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Covid-19 vaccine: Are the four detected cases of facial paralysis worrying?

Screengrab of a post that has been circulating on social media.
Screengrab of a post that has been circulating on social media. © DR
Text by: Observers team
5 min

Fake news about Covid-19 vaccines is already circulating on social media just days after several countries have started their campaigns. Lots of people are worried about potential nasty side effects, while others accuse the media of lying about it. In this series, the FRANCE 24 Observers team takes on some of the most widespread rumours. In this article, we examine the rumours about the four people who developed Bell’s palsy, a type of facial paralysis, during trials for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

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On December 8, the United Kingdom rolled out the Covid-19 vaccine manufactured by the American pharmaceutical company Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech. It was shortly followed by the United States and Canada, who began distribution of the vaccine on December 14. Bahrain and Mexico have also authorised the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. This was followed by approval from the European Medicines Agency on December 21 and a roll-out in Europe on December 27.

The start of these vaccination campaigns have inflamed rumours that were already circulating on social media. 

>> Read more on the Observers:

1 - No, this video doesn’t show a man fainting after taking the Covid-19 vaccine

2 - No, this women wasn’t “vaccinated twice” against Covid-19 

3 - Were there really four people who suffered facial paralysis after getting the vaccine? 

On Facebook, quite a number of people were worriedly circulating a report about vaccine trials published on December 10 by the American Food and Drug Administration (FDA) stating that four people who took part in trials for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine developed a form of temporary facial paralysis called Bell’s Palsy. This condition occurs when the nerve that controls your facial muscles becomes compressed or inflamed due to a bacteria, virus or other illness or trauma. 

In most cases, the paralysis dissipates after several weeks or several months. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke in the United States, Bell’s palsy can affect people of any age. Risk factors include pregnancy, obesity, hypertension, diabetes and upper respiratory ailments. 

Large numbers of people took to social media to share a screengrab of the FDA document and a photo showing three people who have Bell’s palsy. 

Screengrab from a December 11 post on Facebook.
Screengrab from a December 11 post on Facebook. © DR

However, if you run this image of the three people suffering facial paralysis through a reverse image search (check out our guide to find out how), then the photos pop up in several locations. First, it appears on the website of the British Medical Journal (BMJ) on a page explaining Bell’s palsy, which was last updated in November 2019.

The image also appears in a video published on January 23, 2020 on an Indonesian YouTube channel. So the photo existed online well before the FDA report was published on December 10. 

The posts do contain some truth, however. The FDA document, which analyses the results of clinical trials carried out by the Pfizer-BioNTech laboratories, does say that out of the 22,000 people given the Covid-19 vaccine, four developed Bell’s palsy. There were no cases of facial paralysis among the placebo group, volunteers who are given a neutral substance instead of the vaccine as a means of comparison. The FDA said that when the vaccine is deployed more widely, physicians should monitor any development of this condition.

But the report makes clear that the cases of Bell’s palsy may not actually be a side effect of the vaccine. While it notes that there were more cases of Bell’s palsy in the group given the vaccine, it says that it is impossible to determine if there is a cause and effect relationship because of the low number of cases, which also represents a similar rate of the condition's occurrence within the general population."

Conclusion: four cases of paralysis out of 22,000 patients 

In conclusion, while it is true that four people out of the 22,0000 people who took the vaccine during the trial did develop Bell’s palsy, the data gathered by the FDA does not show signs of a clear link between the vaccine and the development of this condition. 

Social media users were also worried about the fact that six people died after taking part in the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine trials. That’s true, but they didn’t die as a result of the vaccination. In the FDA document, it states that, of the six people who died after participating in the trials, four were in the placebo group, which means they didn’t get the vaccine at all. So it is not accurate to tie their deaths to the tests. 

What do we know about the vaccine's side effects?  

The FDA stated in its report published on December 10 that the main side effects for patients who took the vaccine were fatigue, headaches, shivers, aches and a fever. There were also eight cases of appendicitis amongst those who received the vaccine, versus four in the placebo group. La FDA, however, says that this is likely a random occurrence, unrelated to the vaccine.  

The day after the vaccination campaign began in the United Kingdom, officials reported that two people had experienced severe allergic reactions to the vaccine. 

The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), a British government agency, published a recommendation that people who have a history of serious allergic reactions to vaccines, medicine or food (people, for example, who carry epi-pens in case of an anaphylactic reaction) should not be vaccinated. Scientists emphasised the fact that this kind of reaction can occur on rare occasions with any and all vaccines. 

>> Read more on the Observers:

1 - No, this video doesn’t show a man fainting after taking the Covid-19 vaccine

2 - No, this women wasn’t 'vaccinated twice' against Covid-19

Do you question the veracity of something you’ve seen online? Reach out to the FRANCE 24 Observers team by email (observateurs@france24.com) on Facebook or on Twitter.

 

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