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Posts baselessly claim Canada health officer had vaccine side effects

September 23, 2021 GMT

CLAIM: Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, developed Bell’s palsy after receiving the COVID-19 vaccine.

AP’S ASSESSMENT: False. There is no evidence that Tam developed Bell’s palsy after receiving the vaccine. Anna Maddison, a Public Health Agency of Canada spokesperson, said Tam has never had the condition, a form of facial paralysis or weakness. And an expert who reviewed the video of Tam being cited for the claim saw no signs of the disorder.

THE FACTS: Canada’s chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, received her first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, from Pfizer, in April. She posted on Twitter in late June that she received her second dose, from Moderna.

More than two months later, in a Sept. 4 tweet now being shared in Instagram posts, an Oklahoma doctor baselessly claimed that Tam experienced Bell’s palsy as a result of vaccination.

The disorder, which is most often temporary, causes paralysis or a weakening on one side of the face. There is some data indicating that the condition may be a rare adverse event associated with some of the COVID-19 vaccines.

“It is going to be hard to propagandize the vaccine hesitant with such an obvious vaccine adverse event occurring in the Chief Public Health Officer of Canada, Dr. Theresa Tam,” the tweet from Dr. Jim Meehan claimed. “Yes. Most certainly Bell’s Palsy...and clearly a recent development.”

Meehan showed two photos of Tam side by side: One from a 2019 event, the other a screenshot from a video of a Sept. 3 news conference

There is no indication that Meehan—whose website markets supplements and addiction treatment, and who has argued against face masks and the COVID-19 vaccines—specializes in facial paralysis. Requests for comment from Meehan were not returned.

In the Sept. 3 video that Meehan used as purported evidence for his claim, Tam is wearing a headset with an attached microphone that casts a slight shadow over part of her face. Maddison, the Public Health Agency of Canada spokesperson, chalked up any change in the public health officer’s appearance to a distortion in the live video stream.

Maddison said in an email that Tam “was fully vaccinated by late June 2021 and experienced no adverse events following either of her vaccine doses.”“She did not develop and has never had Bell’s Palsy,” Maddison said.

And Dr. Jon-Paul Pepper, director of the Stanford Facial Nerve Center, who works with Bell’s palsy patients, said in a phone interview that he saw no signs of Bell’s palsy in Tam’s presentation, based on his review of the Sept. 3 video.

“I don’t see any evidence that leads to a diagnosis of Bell’s palsy,” he said. “That seems to be completely off base.”

Pepper said patients with Bell’s palsy often present “with complete loss of movement on one side of the face”—though for some it could be weakness—creating an asymmetry. He did not see such signs in the video of Tam.

In August, Health Canada updated its information on Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine “to describe very rare reports of Bell’s Palsy” following vaccination (the agency’s information on Moderna’s vaccine also makes note of such reports). Officials at the time said the vaccines “continue to be safe and effective” against COVID-19 and that the benefits outweigh the potential risks.

Al Ozonoff, associate director of the Precision Vaccines Program at Boston Children’s Hospital, who has examined the issue, said there is data from recent studies pointing to a slightly elevated risk for the condition among vaccine recipients in the weeks following vaccination.

“It is a relatively rare event,” Ozonoff said. He noted that “it’s not an especially serious adverse event,” and that it often resolves itself in weeks, though it is upsetting for patients.

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This is part of AP’s effort to address widely shared misinformation, including work with outside companies and organizations to add factual context to misleading content that is circulating online. Learn more about fact-checking at AP.