In this Wednesday, March 23, 2011 photo Microsoft Corp. founder and philanthropist Bill Gates, right, and his wife Melinda Gates attend to a child as they meet with members of the Mushar community at Jamsot Village near Patna, India. (AP Photo/Aftab Alam Siddiqui)

False claims of Gates vaccine paralysing girls in India resurrected

AAP FactCheck February 17, 2021

The Statement

A Facebook post falsely links the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to claims of girls in India being paralysed by vaccines.

The January 31 post, shared by a New Zealand user, features a meme that reads: “Between 2000 and 2017 490,000 girls in India became paralyzed by Gate’s (sic) vaccines.”

The meme includes a photo of billionaire philanthropists Bill and Melinda Gates with New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

At the time of publication, the post had generated more than 530 shares and 30,000 views, while another example, also posted by a New Zealand user, had more than 370 shares and 19,000 views.

A Facebook post
 A post links Bill and Melinda Gates to claims of girls being paralysed by vaccines. 

The Analysis

The false suggestion that polio vaccines funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation paralysed Indian children can be traced to April 2020 claims by Robert F Kennedy Jr, the nephew of former US president John F Kennedy.

However, then as now, the meme is not correct. The inclusion of a photo of New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern appears to be an attempt to tie her to the Gates duo and the accusations.

The April 8 Instagram post by Robert F Kennedy Jr claimed: “Indian doctors blamed the Gates campaign for a devastating vaccine-strain polio epidemic that paralyzed 496,000 children between 2000 and 2017. In 2017, the Indian government dialled back Gates’ vaccine regimen and evicted Gates and his cronies from the NAB (India’s National Advisory Board.”

Mr Kennedy’s claims were further fuelled by conspiracy website The BL.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has been funding research and child-immunisation programs against diseases such as polio in India.

In 2017, the Indian government issued a statement to dismiss “inaccurate and misleading” press reports that suggested its collaboration with the foundation had stopped. The Gates foundation continues to work in India.

Regarding Mr Kennedy and the post’s paralysation claims, World Health Organization (WHO) data lists only 17 cases of vaccine-derived polio viruses (cVDPV cases) in India between 2000 to 2017. These consisted of 15 cases in 2009 and two in 2010.

The WHO said the South-East Asia region, including India, was certified polio-free in 2014, with the last case of wild poliovirus reported in West Bengal, India, on January 13, 2011. A 2013 article in the Indian Journal of Medical Research noted that India was “hyperendemic for polio” until the early 1990s, with up to 1000 children paralysed daily.

According to the Polio Global Eradication Initiative, vaccine-derived polioviruses are possible but rare. They have been increasing in recent years not because of vaccination programs, such as those backed by the foundation, but “due to low immunisation rates within communities”.

“The best way to prevent them and stop them when there is an outbreak is to vaccinate children. The polio vaccine protects children whether the kind of polio is wild poliovirus or vaccine-derived poliovirus,” its website says.

The WHO says cases of vaccine-associated paralytic polio occurred roughly once for every 2.7 million doses of the oral polio vaccine administered.

Mr Kennedy’s claim of widespread “vaccine-strain polio” cases in his Instagram post differs to an article published under his name on April 15, 2020 in which he blamed the Gates’ campaign for “a devastating non-polio acute flaccid paralysis (NPAFP) epidemic that paralyzed 490,000 children beyond expected rates between 2000 and 2017”.

Acute flaccid paralysis (AFP) is a broad definition for the sudden onset of paralysis or weakness in any part of the body of a child. Causes can include environmental toxins, genetic conditions and infection by viruses, according to a Harvard Medical School post. NPAFP relates to any cases not linked to polio.

Mr Kennedy’s article links to a 2018 study in India, which highlighted a correlation between NPAFP rates and polio vaccination rounds.

The study found that the frequency of polio vaccinations was “directly or indirectly related to the incidence of the paralysis”, with the authors calculating there had been more than 490,000 “excess” cases of NPAFP between 2000 and 2017 in one state.

However, the findings have been criticised as “questionable” and “spurious” due to claimed flaws in the methodology, such as reporting cases in children aged between five and 15 years when the oral polio vaccine campaign targeted children under five.

The correlation observed in some Indian states did not hold in others, even when polio vaccinations were delivered with the same frequency, one critic said.

The study’s authors replied by saying none of the objections were valid and the inclusion of children aged 5-15 years was appropriate.

They also stressed: “We did not say that the NPAFP reported in our paper were cases of vaccine-induced paralysis. Non-polio AFP, by its very definition, excludes polio vaccine-induced paralysis”.

The BBC previously reported that Indian public health officials pointed out the improved monitoring for paralysation cases compared to previous decades, potentially accounting for changes in NPAFP prevalence.

The photo of Ms Ardern with Bill and Melinda Gates included in the meme was taken at their foundation’s Goalkeepers Summit during September 2019 in New York, where the NZ prime minister met with Mr Gates and addressed the event.

While the post does not explicitly link Ms Ardern to the vaccine claims, the photo echoes conspiracy theories that Mr Gates visited New Zealand to trial a COVID-19 vaccine that would microchip recipients. AAP FactCheck debunked that conspiracy here and a similar claim here.

Commenting on the post, a spokesman for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation told AAP FactCheck in an email that the claims were false and provided a link to another fact check debunking the same suggestions.

Similar claims about Indian children being disabled by the polio vaccine – with figures ranging from 47,000 to 496,000 – have been debunked here, here, here and here.

Bill Gates and his wife Melinda
 Bill Gates and wife Melinda on a 2011 trip to Jamsot Village near Patna, India 

The Verdict

The Facebook post recirculates false claims that polio vaccines from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation paralysed hundreds of thousands of children in India.

World Health Organization figures show only 17 instances of vaccine-derived polio in India between 2000 and 2017. The WHO declared South-East Asia region polio-free in 2014.

One Indian study highlighted a potential link between the use of polio vaccines and increased cases of non-polio paralysis in children, however the authors said these cases were not vaccine-induced. The study has also been criticised for flaws in its methodology and conclusions.

False – Content that has no basis in fact.

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