Posts misrepresent monkeypox and make misleading link with Covid vaccine

·4 min read

After the World Health Organization (WHO) reported outbreaks of monkeypox in countries where the disease is not endemic, multiple social media posts claimed that the virus is the same as shingles and therefore a "side effect" of the Covid-19 vaccine. However, health experts told AFP that the virus causing shingles and the one causing Covid are completely unrelated. Furthermore, Australia's vaccine regulator told AFP there is currently insufficient evidence that Covid vaccines "trigger" shingles. The posts shared a stock image of shingles that was erroneously used to illustrate monkeypox.

“Well, well, well...here we go again... using the same pictures for Monkeypox as Shingles," reads an Instagram post shared on May 21, 2022.

It was shared on an account called Rise Melbourne, which has more than 10,000 followers.

"Coincidentally, shingles is a well known covax side effect," the post continues, using an abbreviation for Covid vaccine. "Start connecting the dots people..."

The post shows the same photo of lesions on a person's hand published in two different articles.

The first screenshot shows an article about monkeypox by TheHealthSite.com.

The second screenshot shows an article on shingles by Queensland Health, the provider of public health services in the Australian state.

Screenshot of the misleading Instagram post

The post circulated after the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that outbreaks of monkeypox had been reported in multiple countries where it is not endemic.

As of June 2, more than 780 confirmed cases have been reported to the WHO -- with the bulk of cases found in the United Kingdom, Spain and Portugal.

Similar posts were shared on Facebook here, and on Twitter here.

However, the posts are misleading.

'Insufficient evidence'

The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) -- an Australian government agency that monitors vaccine safety -- conducted an investigation into the risk of shingles following Covid-19 vaccination in September 2021.

The agency told AFP that these investigations "found insufficient evidence to conclude that Covid-19 vaccines trigger herpes zoster infection (shingles)."

"The investigation revealed the rates of Shingles following vaccination with COVID-19 vaccines in Australia to date (September 2021) were significantly less than the expected/background rate of herpes zoster infection in the general population independent of vaccination status."

The administration added that its conclusions were in line with that of other international regulators -- including the US Food and Drugs Administration (FDA) and the European Medicines Agency (EMA) -- which had not taken any regulatory action.

The TGA is continuing to monitor new shingles cases for any possible link with Covid-19 vaccines.

'Completely unrelated viruses'

Edward Holmes, a virologist at the University of Sydney, told AFP that the comparison of viruses in the posts was "nonsense".

"Monkeypox virus and varicella zoster virus are very different viruses and completely unrelated," he said. "Both [diseases] cause a rash but the similarity ends there."

According to Holmes and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, monkeypox belongs to the Orthopoxvirus genus -- the same family of viruses that causes its more well-known relative, smallpox -- but "shingles is caused by a herpes virus, varicella-zoster virus".

The varicella-zoster virus also causes chickenpox and can remain dormant in the body after a person recovers from the disease. The virus can then be reactivated later in life due to triggers such as stress, causing shingles.

Todd Hatchette, a professor with Dalhousie University's Division of Microbiology in Canada, told AFP that rashes caused by monkeypox and shingles can look similar, but they develop differently.

He said rashes caused by shingles can have different stages of blister and ulcer crusts in different areas of the body, while the progression of rashes caused by monkeypox "occurs at the same time in all areas of the skin."

"The 'pox' in the name chickenpox is likely the reason for the confusion," Hatchette said.

Stock image

A reverse image search found the picture used by both TheHealthSite.com and Queensland Health is in fact a stock photo of someone suffering from shingles.

It has been published on stock image site iStock alongside the caption, "Skin infected Herpes zoster virus on the arms".

Below is a comparison of the image as it appears in the articles featured in the misleading post (left) and the image on the iStock website (right):

Screenshot comparison of the image in the articles featured in the misleading post (left) and the image on Shutterstock (right)

According to an archive retrieved from the Wayback Machine, the stock image was used in the article on TheHealthSite.com published on July 17, 2021, before the current outbreak of monkeypox cases in non-endemic countries.

The stock image was removed from the article when it was updated on May 23, 2022, the archive shows.

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