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FACTCHECK

Debunked: No evidence that a rise in serious Strep A cases is caused by Covid or flu vaccines

More people reported having Caesarean sections shortly after receiving a vaccine than Strep A infections

DESPITE CLAIMS TO the contrary circulating online, there is no evidence that vaccines for flu or Covid-19 have caused a surge in serious Strep A cases.

An increase in cases of Group A Streptococcus (iGAS) diseases has been reported across Europe and has led to a number of deaths in Ireland, including a case of a four-year-old child.

However, despite claims circulating on social media attempting to link these cases to vaccines for the flu or Covid-19, no evidence backs this up.

Some of the misleading claims shared online accompanied screenshots of a World Health Organisation (WHO) adverse drug reactions summary for Flumist, a flu vaccine nasal spray.

The screenshot, taken from the WHO’s VigiAccess system — which tracks adverse events in patients to help detect early signs of medicinal side effects — says there were 77 reports of people who took that vaccine later reporting getting a streptococcal infection or strep throat.

However, this does not mean that the vaccines caused the infection or that it makes people who take it more susceptible to catching Strep A. 

“There is nothing to suggest that the rise in Group A strep is due to vaccines,” Karina Butler, UCD Clinical Professor of Paediatrics and Chair of the National Immunisation Advisory Committee (NIAC) told The Journal.

“Quite the contrary: in using the vaccines to prevent viral infection, ie flu or Covid, one can reduce the likelihood of getting a serious invasive bacterial infection.”

Butler also said that there have been previous surges of Strep infections, including in 2014.

The Health Service Executive also explained the reason behind the rise in Strep A cases this year.

“There is likely a combination of factors as to why there has been a slight increase in iGAS [Invasive Group A Streptococcal disease] infection this season,” the HSE told The Journal, “including increased social mixing following the pandemic compared to previous years, as well as increases in other respiratory viruses.”

“A viral infection can often be the first step along the pathway to invasive bacterial infection,” Butler added, “as the viral infection can disrupt our normal mucosal barriers that help prevent invasion of bacteria. One of the problems that we see with flu in children is the development of secondary bacterial pneumonia.“

More than 100 million doses of Flumist have been distributed, according to the manufacturer, so some people who took the vaccine would be expected to have become ill, purely through coincidence.

“In adverse event reporting anything that happens in the period following vaccination is counted – whether that is likely related to the vaccine or not,” Butler explained.

“It is inevitable that there will be a number of coincidental unrelated events, infections or otherwise, that occur during the reporting window.”

To give some perspective, there were more reports to VigiAccess of recently vaccinated people who had a Caesarean section (112), a head injury (579), or who were breastfeeding (528) than reports of Strep A infections (77). 

A disclaimer on the VigiAccess website reads, in part: “Information in VigiAccess on potential side effects should not be interpreted as meaning that the medicinal product or its active substance either caused the observed effect or is unsafe to use.”

“Confirming a causal link is a complex process that requires a thorough scientific assessment and detailed evaluation of all available data.”

Before being able to view VigiAccess data, users must tick a box saying they have read and understood the disclaimer.

The Health Products Regulatory Authority (HPRA), which regulates vaccines in Ireland, also told The Journal in a statement that suspected side effects are recorded on both an Irish and a European level, which are then monitored to detect “possible safety signals”.

“The benefits of currently authorised vaccines for Covid-19 and influenza continue to outweigh their side effects, given the risk of illness and related complications, including hospitalisation and death,” a HPRA response to The Journal read.

“The established safety profile, including the known side effects for these vaccines do not include a causal association with invasive group A strep (iGAS) infections.”

This is not to say there are no side-effects of the nasal flu vaccine; it regularly causes fevers, as well as runny or stuffed noses, according to the vaccine manufacturer.

However, claims there is evidence that the increase in serious cases of Strep A was caused by vaccines are false.

The Journal’s FactCheck is a signatory to the International Fact-Checking Network’s Code of Principles. You can read it here. For information on how FactCheck works, what the verdicts mean, and how you can take part, check out our Reader’s Guide here. You can read about the team of editors and reporters who work on the factchecks here

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