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Covid-19 vaccines and neurological disorders: Is there a link?
If you’ve spent much time on social media in the past few months, you may well have come across scary videos of people apparently experiencing neurological problems — an inability to walk, or seizures — shortly after receiving a Covid-19 vaccine. Such clips have been shared widely online, with little or no explanation, fuelling fear and hesitancy about the jabs.
So what’s really happening? Can the vaccines cause these symptoms, as some anti-vaccine activists claim?
Experts say these videos and other related content are misleading. In reality, the situation is more complex than online conspiracy theorists and anti-vaxxers state.
Symptoms not caused by vaccine ingredients
Firstly, it’s important to note that the content of these videos is generally unverified. It usually isn’t established, for example, whether the individuals pictured actually received a Covid-19 vaccine before their symptoms developed.
But experts who’ve analysed some of the most popular clips say it’s likely many of these people are experiencing something called FND: functional neurological disorder. This happens when mechanisms in the brain that normally govern movement of the body are disrupted.
These symptoms are not caused by any Covid-19 vaccine ingredients, and do not imply the shots are toxic, despite what anti-vax activists might claim. In fact, the same disorders could be triggered by an injection of saline or another placebo, say experts from Massachusetts General Hospital in the US.
In fact, FNDs are relatively common conditions that can be triggered by physical or emotional events like injuries or medical procedures. They may even occur after a combination of physical and psychological trauma.
FNDs don’t have a standard biological explanation like a broken leg or a twisted ankle after a fall. Rather, they can be linked to stress, expectations, beliefs, and a heightened awareness of the body. Symptoms are varied and often inconsistent, but can include things like difficulty with walking.
This doesn’t mean they aren’t real, or that the person experiencing them is making up their symptoms. FNDs are biological responses that can be debilitating for the person who experiences them.
Vaccinations, which some people find scary and painful, can occasionally trigger FNDs. So far, a handful of cases have been documented in medical literature following Covid-19 vaccination: a very small but still significant proportion.
Disinformation makes the problem worse
Stress about the pandemic, uncertainty about getting jabbed and the usually short-lived side effects of the shots can all make the conditions more likely, as can fear caused by viral videos and widespread media coverage of FND symptoms without explanation.
The good news is that FND symptoms are often short-lived, particularly if they’re diagnosed quickly, movement disorders expert Alfonso Fasano told Canadian network CTV. But it’s important for medical staff to be aware of the condition to make sure patients are treated correctly when necessary, experts from the Functional Neurological Disorders Society say.
Treatment often includes movement therapies like physiotherapy, which helps the brain relearn how to properly move the body, or talking therapies that help explore the relationship between the mind and the body
The FND Society said in a statement: “It is important that these conditions are recognised for what they are, in part so that the patient can be appropriately reassured and can, if necessary, access appropriate treatment, and to prevent a misleading impression of neurological complications of the vaccines.”
A threat to vaccination campaigns
Experts fear that viral videos and media coverage of FND cases that fail to properly explain the condition will threaten the success of vaccination drives.
Warning other doctors, Fasano and his colleague Antonio Daniele wrote in a letter to a medical journal: “The success of vaccination programmes relies on high rates of public acceptance and population coverage, which is contingent on encouraging scientific data about safety and efficacy of the vaccines as well as effective information campaigns.”
These social media videos, he told CTV, imply that the FND symptoms depicted are real side effects of vaccines. But no ingredient in the jabs is known to directly cause these responses.
“[It’s] really important for the population to understand that not everything that shows up on social media, not all the claims of side effects from patients, are actually real side effects,” he said.
“There are real side effects, I’m not denying [that]. But we need to be aware that functional problems are actually very common in general, and even more common during the stress of this pandemic.”