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What’s not causing Justin Bieber’s Ramsay Hunt syndrome

PolitiFact | News of Justin Bieber’s diagnosis of a rare illness, coupled with recent health struggles by Bieber’s wife, Hailey, has many people tying the couple’s conditions to the COVID-19 vaccine. Don’t fall for it.
Canadian singer-songwriter Justin Bieber.
Canadian singer-songwriter Justin Bieber. [ ANGELA WEISS/AFP | Getty Images North America ]
Published Jun. 16|Updated Jun. 16

Justin Bieber was forced to postpone dates on his world tour this month after announcing that he was diagnosed with a rare illness. The singer took to Instagram on June 10 to tell his fans that he had Ramsay Hunt syndrome, which caused full paralysis on one side of his face.

“For those who are frustrated by my cancellations of the next shows, I’m just physically, obviously, not capable of doing them,” the 28-year-old said as he spoke to the camera. “This is pretty serious, as you can see.”

The news, coupled with recent health struggles by Bieber’s wife, Hailey, who was hospitalized in March after a blood clot traveled to her brain, has many people on social media tying the couple’s conditions to the COVID-19 vaccine.

“Hailey Bieber had a blood clot in her brain. Justin Bieber now has Ramsay Hunt syndrome,” read a June 11 Facebook post. " Both issues have been linked to (vaccines).”

The post — which featured a needle emoji in place of the word “vaccines” — was flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Facebook.)

The post appears to be entirely speculative; we found no evidence to support its claims.

Justin and Hailey Bieber each posted videos to social media detailing their recent illnesses. Neither mentioned COVID-19 vaccines as being a factor. It’s also not publicly known if either of them have even received a vaccine.

Justin Bieber has been open about his health issues in the past, telling fans on his YouTube series “Seasons” in 2020 that he suffered from Lyme disease and Epstein-Barr virus.

What is Ramsay Hunt syndrome?

Ramsay Hunt syndrome is caused by the varicella zoster virus, the same virus that causes chickenpox and shingles. If someone has chickenpox as a child, the virus lays dormant and can reactivate when the person reaches adulthood, causing shingles. In some people, shingles develops into Ramsay Hunt syndrome.

It affects the facial nerve near the inner ear and can cause swelling, irritation, a painful rash and facial paralysis, among other symptoms. It is not common, affecting about 5 in every 100,000 people, but can happen to anyone who has had chickenpox.

It’s treated with antivirals and steroids, and treatment within three days of symptoms leads to better outcomes, according to health officials. It can take weeks, sometimes months, to recover, and sometimes damage can be permanent.

Justin Bieber and COVID-19

We don’t know whether either of the Biebers have received COVID-19 vaccines. We could not find any public comments from them about getting — or not getting — a vaccine.

We reached out to Bieber’s manager, Scooter Braun through his company’s website, but have not received a response.

In December, the Twitter account for updates on the singer’s recent tour, tweeted that multiple tour dates would require attendees to be fully vaccinated. It’s not clear if that decision was made by Bieber and his team, or if it was due to policies of individual venues or local laws.

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In February, the singer was diagnosed with a mild case of COVID-19, resulting in the postponement of a show in Las Vegas, according to CNN.

COVID-19 vaccines, shingles and Ramsay Hunt syndrome

Researchers have documented cases of people developing shingles, or Ramsay Hunt after vaccination, but no causal link has been established to the vaccines, experts told PolitiFact. There have also been reports of people developing shingles or Ramsay Hunt after a COVID-19 infection.

But health experts we spoke with said that despite these case reports, there is no evidence of an increased risk for shingles or Ramsay Hunt syndrome after getting a COVID-19 vaccine.

“Shingles — of which Ramsay Hunt is a type — has been reported to occur after COVID vaccines, but it would occur within a few weeks of vaccine, if it were to be considered potentially related,” said Dr. Anna Wald, director of the University of Washington’s Virology Research Clinic. “Thus far, it is not clear whether there is an increased risk for shingles after COVID vaccine. However, there is for sure an increased risk for shingles after COVID-19.”

One study published in March found that people 50 and older with even mild cases of COVID-19 were 15% more likely to develop shingles than those who had not been infected. That risk grew to 21% among people who were hospitalized with COVID-19.

Wald said that shingles would develop within a few weeks of a COVID-19 infection, so Bieber’s February illness doesn’t seem related to the virus, unless he was recently reinfected, and it is “unlikely due to vaccine.”

Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said some have hypothesized that reports of post-vaccination reactivation of varicella zoster virus are because immune system changes induced by vaccination “may lead to less control of latent VZV.”

“Shingles has rarely been reported post-vaccination, but has been reported post-COVID, post-influenza, post-rabies, post-hepatitis A and post-Japanese encephalitis vaccination,” Adalja said. “It is difficult to establish causation because shingles is a very common infection and there is a baseline rate that just occurs, especially with advancing age.”

Dr. William Schaffner, a professor in the Division of Infectious Diseases at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, said it’s possible, but unlikely, that a vaccine could have contributed to Bieber’s condition.

“If you ask any scientist, ‘is it possible?’ almost everybody will say, ‘well, perhaps,’ because, as you know, COVID and COVID vaccines, particularly COVID itself, have thrown us lots of curveballs. Do I think it’s likely? The answer to that is no,” he said.

That’s because of the strength of the U.S. vaccine surveillance system, which Schaffner called “probably the best in the world.”

“There are no data from the surveillance systems that would indicate that the vaccines are out there provoking shingles,” Schaffner said. “This question has been asked, not specifically about Ramsay Hunt that I’m aware of, but certainly about shingles. And these surveillance systems have not produced anything like that.”

Curtis Gill, a spokesperson for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said that the agency “has detected no unusual or unexpected patterns of Ramsay Hunt syndrome following immunization that would indicate COVID-19 vaccines are causing or contributing to this condition.”

What happened to Hailey Bieber?

In March, Hailey Bieber went to the hospital after experiencing stroke-like symptoms when a blood clot traveled to her brain. Doctors there told her she had a transient ischemic attack, or TIA, she said in a YouTube video detailing her condition.

She received further testing after being discharged and she said doctors told her she had a patent foramen ovale — a hole in her heart that didn’t close the way it’s supposed to after birth. She said doctors told her the clot escaped through that hole and traveled to her brain.

As for how she got the blood clot in the first place, Bieber said in the video that “all of the doctors came to the conclusion that it was a perfect storm that led to me having a small blood clot.” She said they cited three factors: recently starting birth control pills despite a history of migraines, a recent COVID-19 infection and traveling on long flights to and from Paris in a short amount of time.

The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines have not been linked to blood clots, although the Johnson & Johnson vaccine has been linked to a rare clotting disorder called thrombosis with thrombocytopenia syndrome, which is not what Hailey Bieber had.

Our ruling

A Facebook post claimed that Justin Bieber’s diagnosis of Ramsay Hunt syndrome and Hailey Bieber’s blood clot were caused by COVID-19 vaccines.

We could find no evidence via public statements that either have been vaccinated. Each of them detailed their health conditions to fans in social media videos, and neither tied them to vaccines.

Experts we spoke with said there is no evidence that vaccines are causing or contributing to Ramsay Hunt syndrome. And Hailey’s condition was caused a hole in her heart which allowed a blood clot, possibly caused in part by a COVID-19 infection, to travel to her brain.

We rate this claim False.

By Jeff Cercone

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