I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again—and likely again and again and again. In the age of the pandemic, everything old is new again when it comes to antivaccine misinformation, disinformation, and conspiracy theories. Indeed, the new COVID-19 conspiracy theories only differ from old antivaccine conspiracy theories in certain details specific to the coronavirus causing the pandemic and the vaccines used to prevent COVID-19; for example, antivaxxers might have built up elaborate “mechanisms” and conspiracy theories based on the rare occurrence of myocarditis after the vaccination, but the message is still that vaccines are killing young people and causing
“depopulation,” just as the antivax message about Gardasil was that it was killing girls and young women back in the day. So I’m rather embarrassed to say that it came as a bit of a surprise to me that the latest viral trend seems to be videos of people claiming that COVID-19 vaccines caused them to develop chronic spasms and seizures.
Here’s an example of what I mean, in response to Elon Musk’s claim that he had serious side effects from a second COVID-19 booster:
I soon realized that most of these stories date back to 2021, some to January 2021, when the COVID-19 vaccines were being administered still mainly to healthcare workers, who were first in line to get the then-limited supply of vaccines. I also discovered that her son Brent Griner had posted this video to Facebook two years ago:
I’m no neurologist, but looking at the video above I started to get strong flashbacks to 2009. Why do I say 2009? Does anyone remember Desiree Jennings? Does anyone remember the videos of her claiming that she got dystonia from an influenza vaccine and how much the media botched the reporting on her claims? Remember how if she walked backwards, the strange jerky movements resolved themselves? Remember how neurologists (like Dr. Steve Novella) said that this didn’t look at all like dystonia? Remember how her Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS) report was located, and it turned out that, when she was admitted to the hospital, her “admitting neurologist felt that there was a strong psychogenic component to the symptomatology”? (Also please remember that “psychosomatic” and “psychogenic” do not mean that the patient isn’t suffering real symptoms.) And then how she was miraculously “cured” of her dystonia by none other than longtime cancer and autism quack and antivaxxer Dr. Rashid Buttar?
Just like Ms. Jennings, Ms. Desselle has found her quack too:
Dr. Pierre Kory is quite proud of it too:
Of course, one mistake that antivaxxers made with respect to the Desiree Jennings case was that they called her condition “dystonia.” That made it ridiculously easy to search the VAERS database and find what was almost certainly her report and discover that she almost certainly did not have dystonia.
Here’s another case:
Let’s just say that I’ve never seen a seizure like that either. Again, I’m not a neurologist, but even so, I wasn’t the only one noticing…inconsistencies…in his story:
In fairness, he seems to have just gotten one date wrong, but it is rather odd that he claims to be so disabled and yet can be seen out and about as noted. Then there’s this video:
Then there is Shawn Skelton, who has similarly been posting videos like this to social media:
And on Facebook in January 2021:
What all of these cases have in common is that their “seizures” and “spasms” don’t look like anything I’ve ever seen before, which is why I sent them to a real neurologist, Dr. Steve Novella. Another thing that they all have in common is that there is little or no medical information to allow doctors and health professionals to determine whether there is any “there” there:
For instance, with respect to Ms. Skelton:
“By Thursday morning, I was in full body convulsions,” she said. “There’s nothing that will convince me that this is not from the Moderna vaccine.”
Since her video was posted, she’s been treated and released from Deaconess Orthopedic Neuroscience Hospital, according to the Evansville Courier & Press newspaper.
Skelton said an MRI, CT scan and blood cultures yielded no answers. According to her fiance, doctors told Skelton her problem is likely stress-related. The CDC told the Courier & Press that Skelton’s symptoms aren’t common in people who’ve taken the vaccine.
PolitiFact reached out to Skelton on Facebook, but hasn’t heard back. In a Facebook post on Jan. 18, she said she’s raising money to help pay for treatment.
Remember the first woman whose video that I posted from Twitter above, Angelia Gipson Giselle. Another article from 2021 reports:
The Facebook videos were short but unsettling. One, posted on the profile of Indiana resident Shawn Skelton, shows her shuddering on what looks like a hospital bed, an exhausted look on her face. In another, Skelton spends over a minute sticking her tongue out as it writhes oddly. Three other videos – all just a few seconds long – were posted by Louisiana-based Brant Griner, and feature his mother Angelia Gipson Desselle violently trembling and struggling to walk in a dimly-lit hospital room.
The videos all made the same claims: both Skelton and Desselle had been vaccinated for Covid-19 shortly before developing their tremors, and the vaccine, they alleged, was to blame. There is no evidence that this is the case. But, on Facebook, the truth rarely matters. For days, the videos spread unchecked, racking up millions of views and tens of thousands of comments. Devoid of context and, even now, challenging to factcheck, their spread is the latest salvo in the struggle to debunk vaccine disinformation and misinformation. To date, the videos have been shared by Facebook groups that push natural and alternative medicines, anti-vaxxers, 5G conspiracy theorists and by the far right.
Sound familiar? If that doesn’t, then how about this:
Skelton wrote on Facebook that doctors chalked up her shaking to conversion disorder, a mental condition triggered by extreme stress. In a Facebook post on January 12, Skelton said she remained unconvinced that stress was the cause of her condition. Since then, she has been posting about using CBD oil and “detoxing”. A friend of Skelton’s has also started a fundraising campaign, asking for $4,000 to pay for a doctor able to provide her with the “answers she deserves” about her condition. As of January 22, it has raised $4,560 from 127 donors.
Just like the case of Desiree Jennings, there is quackery involved, and money being raised to pay for the quackery. A similar dynamic appears to be at play with Ms. Desselle:
She then claims to have developed symptoms – abnormal heartbeat, trembling, difficulty moving, pounding headaches – on January 9, when she was admitted to hospital. In a video published from what appears to be her hospital bed, Desselle says that, after her hospitalisation, she was diagnosed with Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome, a congenital heart condition that can cause an irregular heartbeat. She does not explain whether the doctors who visited her linked her symptoms to the syndrome or to the vaccine.
In another video, she says that her doctor thinks that her symptoms were “related to the vaccine. He said there are some metals in the vaccine that have done this to my body.” The Pfizer vaccine contains no metal. A Pfizer spokesperson says that neuromuscular disorders are not among the known side effects of its vaccine.
At the time of this report, there were no reports in VAERS of this sort of reaction, either.
There are a number of things to note about these stories. First, there is no evidence that the “seizures” (if they are that) and “spasms” (if they are that) have anything to do with COVID-19 vaccines, just as there was no evidence to show that Desiree Jennings’ “dystonia” had anything to do with flu vaccines. Also, a number of doctors noted that their movements did not look like anything like, well, anything, as Dr. Steve Novella noted two years ago:
When looking at the video it is possible to say what the movements are not – they are not convulsions, dystonia, myoclonus, ballismus, chorea, ticks, or any specific kind of tremor. After eliminating all the known phenomena of involuntary movements, what’s left?
Good question. Steve gives you an answer from a neurologist’s standpoint:
This is a situation we always approach carefully in neurology. We don’t want to make the argument from ignorance, but eliminating everything possible is significant. There are essentially two possibilities left – either this is a new phenomenon currently unknown to neurology, or it represents a conversion disorder, which is essentially psychological. But are there any positive signs that indicate a conversion disorder, rather than this only being a diagnosis of exclusions? Sort of. Experienced clinicians who have seen many patients with psychological movements develop an eye for what they tend to look like. There may be specific features, but also a gestalt. In any case – if I looked at this video without any context, I would conclude this is overwhelmingly likely to be conversion disorder. Apparently every physician who has seen this patient agrees, and other neurologists have commented publicly that this is likely the case.
Comments on social media tend to fall into two categories – that this is clearly a vaccine side effect or that the patient is faking. Neither is likely to be true. Conversion disorder is not “faking” (faking is technically called a factitious disorder, or more colloquially, malingering). People experiencing a conversion disorder do not have insight into what is happening. This also is a real medical disorder, just a psychological one, and should not be stigmatized. But we do need to understand it in order to properly deal with it.
This is why I was so alarmed to see people on “our side” posting things like this:
Again, don’t do this. Before someone with a conversion disorder, also known as a functional neurological system disorder, can be treated, she needs to accept that that’s what she has. Mocking such people is a perfect way to make them double down in their belief that they have a disease or disorder whose symptoms can be traced to a definite anatomic or physiologic cause. Brent Griner took down many of the videos of his mother, Angelia Desselle, because he claimed that he was getting “harassment” from vaccine advocates over that. If that was true, then I will happily tell my readers yet again: Don’t do that!
On the other hand, sometimes antivaxxers conflate criticism and people saying that what they are posting is not credible with “harassment,” making it hard to tell how much is legitimate criticism and questioning and how much might actually be harassment. In such cases, I’ll generally give the benefit of the doubt and simply say: Don’t do that, and, if anyone on “our side” did that, I’ll call them out.
It’s also important to note that many, if not most, of these people probably weren’t antivaccine when they suffered their symptoms. After all, in January 2021, it was actually very difficult to get a COVID-19 vaccine if you weren’t a healthcare worker or elderly, as those were the groups targeted for priority. Indeed, Ms. Skelton is a nurse, which is why she was able to access the vaccine in early January 2020. It is, of course, human nature to look for a cause when a sudden change in health occurs; so it’s not surprising that people like Ms. Skelton would look for causes, the most obvious of which, given all the antivaccine misinformation that was swirling at the time, was the COVID-19 vaccine. It’s also not surprising that people like this would gravitate towards the antivaccine movement, given that antivaxxers believe them instantly, join them in blaming their “seizure” activity on vaccines, and and portray them as martyrs. No wonder Ms. Skelton and Desselle have both been featured on Del Bigtree’s show, because of course they have. (No, I’m not going to link to the show.)
Another important observation is that these stories first went viral two years ago. Seriously, it’s been that long. After their initial virtality in early 2021, with both Ms. Desselle and Ms. Skelton making the rounds of antivaccine podcasts , they had long ago faded into the background of antivax anecdotes and noise, to be replaced by new anecdotes and disinformation.
However, antivax anecdotes and specific pieces of misinformation never truly die. They keep resurfacing again and again, before drifting back into the background noise.The problem is that, when someone as prominent and with as many Twitter followers as Elon Musk gives antivaxxers a chance to resurrect such stories, they can go viral again and antivaxxers can party in 2023 like it was 2021 again. That’s why it’s definitely not good for public health to have a conspiracy-minded billionaire running one of the most influential social media platforms out there.