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- Diphtheria was a common cause of death among children in the United States in the 1920s. A vaccine was introduced in the 1940s, and the illness has now been almost completely eradicated in the U.S.
- Severe adverse reactions to the current version of the DTaP vaccine are rare.
As advisers to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently updated the recommended childhood immunization schedule to include the COVID-19 vaccine, an Instagram post claimed that one of the already recommended vaccines does more harm than good.
An Instagram user shared a series of slides Oct. 19 about the bacterial infection diphtheria, comparing its symptoms with supposed adverse reactions to the DTaP vaccine used to prevent it.
"I want everyone to know about poison darts so help me get it out to everyone!" the post’s caption said.
The post was flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram.)
Diphtheria is a bacterial infection that mainly affects children, attacking their cardiovascular, urinary and nervous systems. It was a common cause of death in children in the U.S. during the 1920s and until the first vaccine to prevent it was introduced to the country in the 1940s. The shot helped prevent tetanus and whooping cough in addition to diphtheria and was a precursor to the modern DTaP vaccine.
Although complications from diphtheria can damage the heart muscle and nerves, cause kidney failure, and — in 1 in 10 cases — death, the post misleadingly portrays the adverse reactions of the vaccine as more severe. The post makes the unfounded claim that side effects from the vaccine can include coma, epilepsy and death.
The post also frames diphtheria infections as incredibly rare, which is misleading. The reason the infections are rare is because the vaccine has almost completely eradicated the illness.
The post doesn’t provide a source for its information, but it appears to have taken some of its text word-for-word from the National Vaccine Information Center's web page about diphtheria and the DTaP vaccine.
The DTaP vaccine has been found to be safe and effective for use in children, and the CDC said the risk of developing a serious adverse reaction after receiving it is rare.
The most common reactions from a DTaP vaccination include soreness or swelling at the injection site, irritability and loss of appetite. Those side effects are considered mild and eventually go away on their own.
As with any medicine, the CDC said the vaccine does have a small chance of causing an adverse reaction such as anaphylaxis, which can lead to death.
The Instagram post says, "‘Fun’ fact: The last confirmed case in the U.S. was in 2003, with approximately 0 to 5 cases occurring per 100,000 individuals in the U.S. since 1980."
What the post doesn’t say is that the reason for that is widespread vaccination. The CDC said diphtheria cases averaged less than one per year by the 1990s. Vaccination coverage for diphtheria is consistently high in the U.S., and around 93% of children received three out of the four recommended doses of the DTaP vaccine by the time they were 24 months old.
The World Health Organization found that drops in immunization rates in other parts of the world resulted in outbreaks of vaccine-preventable infections and diseases like diphtheria and measles.
The current DTaP vaccine replaced the DTwP vaccine in the U.S. and in other developed nations during the mid-1990s as it had fewer reported adverse effects.
An Instagram post says the diphtheria vaccine is a "poison dart," with side effects worse than the symptoms of diphtheria.
The diphtheria vaccine is safe and effective, and its widespread use has nearly eradicated the illness in the United States. Side effects from the vaccine are typically minor, and serious adverse reactions are rare.
Diphtheria was a leading cause of death among children in the U.S. in the 1920s, and complications from it can cause damage to the heart muscle, nerve damage, kidney failure and death.
We rate this claim False.
Slate, "Antivaxxers using billboards to promote their dangerous message," March 15, 2013
PolitiFact, "How an alternative gateway to VAERS data helps fuel vaccine misinformation," Feb. 28, 2022
The Washington Post, "A major funder of the anti-vaccine movement has made millions selling natural health products," Dec. 20, 2019
Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, A Look at Each Vaccine: Diphtheria, Tetanus and Pertussis Vaccines, April 7, 2020
CDC, Epidemiology and prevention of vaccine-preventable diseases: Diphtheria, accessed Oct. 21, 2022
World Health Organization, COVID-19 pandemic fuels largest continued backslide in vaccinations in three decades, July 15, 2022
UpToDate, "Diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis immunization in children 6 weeks through 6 years of age," Feb. 22, 2022
CDC, Diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis vaccines, Sept. 9, 2020
CDC, DTaP (Diphtheria, Tetanus, Pertussis) VIS, Aug. 6, 2021
Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Vaccines and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), Jan. 7, 2019
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