There is one image that comes to mind when you think about the Zika virus.
A baby in a bath. A beautiful baby who is loved and being cared for. That baby has microcephaly, a condition where babies are born with an under-developed brain. A condition, experts believe, is caused by the Zika virus.
These Brazilian Zika babies are the frontline victims of the virus, which can leave a carrier symptom-free.
But these babies are being used for another purpose.
Their condition is currently being used by anti-vaccination campaigners as part of an agenda to scare people away from vaccination – specifically the Tdap vaccination which includes a vaccine against whooping cough.
Last night, Therese Kerr, mother of supermodel Miranda Kerr and self-described “Visionary, Public Speaker, Author and advocate for holistic family health” shared on her personal Facebook page a story that links the Zika virus to a common vaccine given to pregnant mothers:
You can read about some of Therese Kerr’s curious ‘wellness’ claims here, and Therese’s daughter Miranda Kerr’s promotion of anti-vaccination messages here: Miranda Kerr is trying to sell you a very dangerous message.
A quick search will find the same or similar articles shared in anti-vaccination circles of the internet.
The article shared by Therese Kerr and other anti-vaccination advocates claims that it isn’t Zika causing birth defects – rather, they believe it is being caused by immunisation against diphtheria, tetanus and whooping cough.
The article shared by Kerr includes the quote: “Some quick research suggests the real culprit is not this decades-old low-impact virus at all, but rather a program of non-recommended injection of the Tdap vaccine directly into pregnant women.” (emphasis added)
Guy Crittenden, the man who wrote that sentence and has been credited with writing the article about the link between vaccination and Zika, has since stepped back from his controversial claims, writing on his Facebook page, “I have not at any point claimed to know conclusively what is causing the microcephalic births, nor was I the author of the article I shared.”
The other source of the article shared by Therese Kerr is a wordpress blog called, “Brazilian Shrunken Head Babies.”
No scientific research. No coherent links. No evidence. And yet people continue to share the bogus message across the internet.
In addition to the dubious nature of the claims made in the article, posts about this story (including Therese Kerr’s post) have included the image of American two girls who are living with microcephaly.
Mamamia spoke to the mother of the girls whose image has been used in the article shared by Therese Kerr and others.
Gwen Hartley who blogs at The Hartley Holligans, is mother to Claire (14) and Lola (9), and says she is frustrated that their image has been used in relation to the Zika virus. “It was disappointing to see our girls’ images “stolen” and used for the anti-vax propaganda & even for Zika purposes – as they don’t have microcephaly from either cause.”
Ms Hartley said she has contacted people who are sharing her daughters’ images without her permission – and without relevance: “I actually contacted all of the sources I could find, and I actually got a few of those pictures removed & one man even wrote an apology! I had a lot of special needs microcephaly mamas & papas going to bat for me — this is a fierce bunch of people.”
It is cruel that anti-vaccination campaigners have chosen to use the plight of Brazilian babies to discourage the use of life-saving vaccines.
But to use the images of two children living a positive life against the wishes of their supportive family to “scare” people away from vaccination is deeply unethical.
Mamamia spoke to Dr Rachael Dunlop, medical researcher, and asked her to explain what the Tdap vaccine is and its relationship to microcephaly:
What does the Tdap vaccine do?
“The Tdap (tetanus, diphtheria, acellular pertussis or whooping cough) is a booster vaccine for everyone 11 years and older, including pregnant women and is designed prevent whooping cough in newborn infants via the transfer of maternal antibodies during pregnancy. The vaccine for whooping cough does not have lifetime effectiveness, and since babies under 12 months are most susceptible to the complications from this disease, getting a booster will provide the baby some short-term protection against whooping cough in early life. This is particularly important since babies who have had no vaccines for whooping cough are most at risk of death and long term complications from whooping cough. After receiving the whooping cough vaccine, the mother will create protective antibodies and pass some of them to the baby before birth.”
Is it given to women in Australia?
“Tdap is recommended as a single dose for pregnant women in Australia, to be administered the third trimester of pregnancy. Vaccination during pregnancy has been shown to be more effective in reducing the risk of whooping cough in young infants than vaccination of the mother after birth of the baby. Vaccination is recommended with each pregnancy to provide maximal protection to every infant; this includes pregnancies which are closely spaced (e.g. <2 years).”
Does Tdap cause birth defects?
“There is no scientific evidence that Tdap causes birth defects. A recent large scale study of more than 120,000 pregnant women looked at pregnancy and birth outcomes in women who received the Tdap during pregnancy and reported no increased risk of preterm birth or underweight babies. Further, Tdap use in pregnant women is not unique to Brazil – women all over the world receive it – so there must be other factors at play in the rise in birth defects.”
Could it be the cause of the birth defects attributed to the Zika virus?
“Although the precise cause(s) of the apparent increase in cases of microcephaly have not yet been identified, the fact that Tdap boosters occur in the third trimester of pregnancy – well after the child’s brain has developed – should give you confidence that Tdap is not to blame. The timing of infection points to the first trimester, perhaps early in the second, rather than the third trimester when Tdap boosters are given. So this alone is enough to rule out the Tdap as a contributing factor.”
Scare campaigns are a familiar weapon in the anti-vaxxer arsenal.
They have also been known to use images of children without their parents’ permission as dramatic illustrations of their anti-science “truth”.
But to use an international health crisis and the babies impacted most severely by that crisis – as well as children who have no relationship to the Zika virus – to promote a bogus agenda is unethical, immoral and deeply dangerous.
If you’d like to read more about the adventures of the Hartley family, you can find their blog here.
Therese Kerr was contacted about why she shared the post linking Zika and vaccines, but has not responded at the time of publication.