(NEXSTAR) — In the week since pop music star Justin Bieber announced he has Ramsay Hunt Syndrome, a condition that occurs when an outbreak of shingles affects the facial nerves, the diagnosis has been co-opted by anti-vaccination advocates online.
Bieber, 28, said in an Instagram video last Friday that he couldn’t move half his face. The singer said he had to cancel his North American tour while undergoing treatment.
“It’s this virus that attacks the nerve in my ear and my facial nerves and caused my face to become paralyzed,” Bieber said. “As you can see, this eye is not blinking. I can’t smile on this side of my face; this nostril does not move. So there is total paralysis on this side of my face.”
The condition is somewhat similar to the better-known Bell’s palsy, although the effects of Ramsay Hunt are more severe. Following the announcement, several anti-vaccine personalities and social accounts mistakenly attributed the cause of Bieber’s condition to the COVID-19 vaccine. Some have also tried to link the vaccines to a mini-stroke that Bieber’s wife Hailey Bieber suffered in March after a blood clot traveled to her brain.
One of the posts now flagged as misinformation read: “Hailey Bieber had a blood clot in her brain. Justin Bieber now has Ramsey Hunt Syndrome. Both problems are linked to [needle emoji]. The media thinks we are stupid, but everyone knows.”
Aside from not knowing whether or not the Biebers are vaccinated, a list of medical experts opined to debunk the false social media rumors.
The Poynter Institute’s Politifact fact-checker discussed one of the reports used to publicize anti-vaccine claims online with one of his co-authors, University of Hong Kong professor Bernard Man Yung Cheung.
Some online have pointed to Cheung’s report as evidence of a link between the Ramsay Hunt and COVID-19 vaccines, explains Poynter. But both Cheung and another co-author, Oscar Hou In Chou, say the report — which he mentioned 1 37-year-old male who developed RHS days after vaccination – does not prove that one caused the other. Instead, the report, published in January in the Postgraduate Medical Journal, elaborates that the researchers considered that the vaccine could have triggered the syndrome based on time.
No conclusive evidence is given in the report and both Cheung and Hou propose that the vaccine could simply have lowered the man’s immunity to the types of herpes viruses already present, causing the dormant virus to reactivate and trigger facial paralysis.
Both researchers say they firmly believe in vaccines.
Cheung told Poynter that all vaccines come with risks of side effects, “some of which are frequent but harmless, and some of which are rare but harmful.”
Meanwhile, the epidemiologist Dr. Katrine Wallace, from the University of Illinois at the Chicago School of Public Health, used TikTok to take down unproven vaccination claims. Instead, @epidemiologistkat, as she’s known on the video site, says that Bieber’s RHS actually serves as a reminder of why you he must get vaccinated.
“I am here to say that this issue is a perfect example of why vaccines are important. Ramsay Hunt syndrome is basically the chickenpox virus that causes chickenpox. It can lie dormant in your nervous system for decades and then reemerge like shingles. And that’s what happened to Justin Bieber. He has herpes in his ear and the nerves in his face that control eye and mouth movement. Vaccinating children against chickenpox will protect against shingles in children and later in their lives as adults… Go vaccinate your children against chickenpox.”
Dr. Katrine Wallace
Wallace also reiterates that vaccines do not cause herpes either. It is a fact supported by Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.
“Herpes zoster has rarely been reported after vaccination, but it has been reported after post-COVID, post-influenza, post-rabies, post-hepatitis A, and post-vaccination post-Japanese encephalitis,” Adalja told Poynter.
Is it fake news?
The Cornell University Library has an entire section with resources on how to spot fake news, propaganda and disinformation.
The tips are:
- Does the statement or post include a link (or links) to credible sources for your claim? Do other credible media outlets you recognize by name report the same thing?
- Look for unusual URLs. If they end in Io or .com/co, they are likely not legit.
- Dissect the layout. Look for grammatical errors, incorrect dates, bold statements without sources, and sensational imagery. These are red flags.
- Dig deeper. Who wrote the article? Who hosts/supports the site?
- Cross-check. Use fact-checking websites to confirm information.
- Try a reverse image search. If the same photo appears in unrelated stories, be suspicious.
Also, it’s important to assess your own biases and the biases of the people who share the information you see. And, as always, it’s important to check the facts before sharing anything.