A self-described “alternative news” story suggests the flu shot was responsible for the death of a New York state senator. The official cause of death is still pending.
The weekend before Thanksgiving, New York State Sen. José Peralta worked at a community event offering the flu shot for free.
“The senator was a huge advocate of public health,” his spokesman, Chris Sosa, told FactCheck.org.
Peralta, 47, died days later, on Nov. 21. While Sosa said his official cause of death is still pending, his wife told the New York Post that preliminary results show he died of “septic shock” — which occurs when sepsis leads to dangerously low blood pressure. Sepsis, caused by the body’s response to an infection, can be life-threatening if left unchecked.
But an “alternative news” story posted Nov. 27 on a website called Collective Evolution exploits Peralta’s death, and his advocacy, by suggesting his death resulted from the flu vaccine.
The author includes an important caveat: “[T]here is no way for me to know for sure whether the flu shot was the cause of, or was a contributing factor in Jose Peralta’s death.” But the article makes misleading and speculative statements that all but draw an unsupported connection between Peralta’s flu shot and his death.
“After Getting Flu Shot, New York State Senator Gets Sick For Two Weeks, Then Dies,” the headline reads.
The story goes on to cite a Nov. 22 New York Times article that quotes Sosa as saying Peralta had resisted going to a doctor despite not feeling well, but eventually went for an exam. “It was like pulling teeth to get him to talk about not feeling well,” Sosa told the Times. “He just thought he was having symptoms related to getting the flu shot.”
But Sosa told us those remarks were not intended to convey any connection between the flu shot and Peralta’s death. He called such an assertion “scientific nonsense.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that some who get the flu shot may experience a low-grade fever, headaches and muscle aches. It notes that the “most common side effects from the influenza shot are soreness, redness, and tenderness or swelling where the shot was given. “
Sosa said that, by the time Peralta consulted a doctor at NYC Health + Hospitals/Elmhurst, he had other symptoms not expected from the flu shot — such as difficulty breathing. He was scheduled for an early December follow-up exam.
“I do not for a moment believe his death was caused by the flu shot,” Sosa said. “The senator would be disappointed to find that conspiracy theorists are using his death to forward their agenda by misrepresenting the facts.”
Judith O’Donnell, an epidemiologist and section chief of the infectious diseases division at Penn Presbyterian Medical Center, said she had never heard of someone getting sepsis from the vaccine.
“I would say it’s impossible,” she said.
Sepsis could be triggered a number of ways. O’Donnell said it could result from, say, bacterial pneumonia, or a urinary tract infection that spreads into the bloodstream.
“Septic shock is caused by an overwhelming bacterial infection that generally starts somewhere, but the bacteria gets into the bloodstream,” she said, leading to a chain of “inflammatory events” that could lead to organ failure. “If not treated, or treated too late, it can even lead to death.”
The alt-news story — which is laced with opinion — criticizes the media for ignoring “a possible connection between vaccines and human illness, disease and death. … Especially in this case, as septic shock has been previously linked to the flu.”
But it’s not the flu vaccine that has been linked to sepsis — it’s the flu itself.
“A certain subsection of patients can develop sepsis” from influenza, O’Donnell said — typically if they are already at risk, such as elderly or very young people, or pregnant women, and have compromised immune systems.
The dubious article concludes with the false claim that “the historical rise in the promotion and usage of vaccines correlates to the rise of disease and death from illnesses like the flu,” which “should be enough for us to write off taking vaccines altogether.”
That’s contrary to the facts.
A 2017 CDC study — reviewing nearly 5,000 hospitalized flu patients from the 2013-2014 season — found that those who received the vaccine were between 52 and 79 percent less likely to die than those who had not received the vaccine.
“In other words, an unvaccinated hospitalized flu patient was 2 to 5 times more likely to die than someone who had been vaccinated,” the CDC said in a press release.
Likewise, an article presented by the World Health Organization, citing a number of studies, says vaccines are “among the most efficient tools for promoting individual and public health.”
Experts have long tried to squash the misconception that the flu shot can lead to the flu. “I wish there was some way we could really put that myth to bed,” O’Donnell said.
The University of California Berkeley School of Public Health notes: “Injectable vaccines can’t cause the flu because they’re made either with a version of the virus that has been inactivated, or ‘killed,’ or with only components of the virus.” Those components “trigger your immune system to make antibodies,” O’Donnell said, which help safeguard patients from getting the flu — or from getting seriously ill if they do.
Health officials have urged patients to get vaccinated, in part to stave off complications from the flu that could be fatal (including sepsis). The CDC recommends that “everyone 6 months of age and older should get a flu vaccine every season.”
Update, Jan. 15, 2019: Peralta had acute promyelocytic leukemia (APL), according to autopsy results provided to the family, Sosa told FactCheck.org. Sosa said Peralta’s wife and family were unaware that the late state senator had cancer; he had received a physical in June and “nothing alarming came up.” Those with cancer can be at higher risk of developing an infection and, therefore, sepsis, according to the CDC.
Update, Jan. 17, 2019: The New York City Medical Examiner’s Office told us that it determined that Peralta died from “complications of acute promyelocytic leukemia.”
Editor’s note: FactCheck.org is one of several organizations working with Facebook to debunk misinformation shared on the social media network.
“14 Facts You Should Know About the Flu.” University of California Berkeley School of Public Health. 28 Nov 2018.
Andre, FE, et. al. “Vaccination greatly reduces disease, disability, death and inequity worldwide.” Bulletin of the World Health Organization, vol. 86, no. 2. Feb 2008.
Christenson, Brith, et. al. “Additive preventive effect of influenza and pneumococcal vaccines in elderly persons.” European Respiratory Journal. 2004.
Enos, Richard. “After Getting Flu Shot, New York State Senator Gets Sick For Two Weeks, Then Dies.” Collective Evolution. 27 Nov 2018.
“Influenza and Pneumoccal Disease Can Be Serious, Health Officials Urge Vaccination.” Press release. National Foundation for Infectious Diseases. 2018.
Mays, Jeffery C. “José Peralta, First Dominican-American Elected to New York State Senate, Dies at 47.” The New York Times. 22 Nov 2018.
“New CDC Study Shows Flu Vaccine Reduces Severe Outcomes in Hospitalized Patients.” U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 25 May 2017.
O’Donnell, Judith. Section chief of the infectious diseases division, Penn Presbyterian Medical Center. Phone interview with FactCheck.org. 6 Dec 2018.
“Seasonal flu shot.” U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2 Oct 2018.
“Sepsis.” Mayo Clinic. Accessed 5 Dec 2018.
Sosa, Chris. Spokesman, New York State Senator José Peralta. Phone interview with FactCheck.org. 3 Dec 2018.