“Shingles is a well known covax side effect,” claims a graphic circulating on Facebook and WhatsApp in May 2022. One instance of it was viewed almost 25,000 times in less than a week after it was posted.
Covax is short for Covid-19 Vaccines Global Access, which aims to provide equitable access to Covid vaccines across the globe. But the graphic appears to use “Covax” to refer to Covid vaccines in general.
It includes two news articles, both with the same photo of skin lesions. But one article discusses monkeypox and the other shingles. The photo does in fact show shingles. The graphic suggests this is evidence of a conspiracy, which Africa Check discusses in another report.
But is shingles really a side effect of Covid vaccines? We looked into it.
No evidence of a link
Shingles is a disease caused by a type of herpes virus called varicella-zoster. It results in painful lesions on the skin. Shingles only occurs in people who have had chickenpox before, when the virus resurfaces after the initial chickenpox infection.
A review and meta-analysis evaluated research published up until the end of 2021 that recorded cases of shingles after Covid vaccination. The researchers found that there was no significant association between the vaccines and shingles. They also found no difference in the rates of shingles after vaccination with either Pfizer or Moderna vaccines.
They concluded that, based on current data, there is no link between Covid vaccines and shingles.
Another study looked at the electronic health records of almost 600,000 patients in the United States who had received at least one Covid vaccination in 2020 and 2021. Of those, 716 patients had been diagnosed with shingles in the three months before they were vaccinated. And 781 were diagnosed with shingles in the three months after vaccination.
Researchers found that statistically, there was not a big enough difference between the number of shingles cases before and after vaccination to suggest any link.
Another study looked at cases of shingles after Covid vaccination on the US Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (Vaers) database. Anyone can report an adverse event after vaccination, to be included on the database and used for monitoring. But it’s important to note that a Vaers report does not necessarily mean that a vaccine caused an adverse event.
The study looked at around 6,000 cases of shingles and herpes simplex. The researchers concluded that the small number of cases, and the fact that almost all of them were “non-serious in nature”, meant that shingles was “negligible” as an adverse event after Covid vaccination.
Covid-19 infection might be linked with higher risk of shingles
The evidence suggests that shingles are not a side effect of Covid vaccinations. But research published in March 2022 shows that infection with Covid-19 is linked with a higher chance of developing shingles.
The researchers looked at almost 400,000 people over 50 years old who had Covid-19, and another 1.5 million who had not been infected. They found that those with Covid-19 had a 15% higher risk of developing shingles. The risk for those who were hospitalised for Covid-19 was 21% higher.
There are some limitations to the study, including that its results may not apply to other populations. But it does suggest a possible link between Covid-19 infection and shingles, at least in people 50 years and older.
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