United Kingdom

DR MAX PEMBERTON: You can't blame it ALL on the vaccine 

All medicines — in fact, all medical procedures — have side effects of one sort or another. Some are rare, while some are common. And to complicate matters, we know that some of the side effects reported are nothing to do with the drug at all.

It’s pure coincidence they occurred at the same time someone started taking the medication or had that procedure.

However, people will swear blind that they must be related, even when you assure them that there is no possible way it could have been caused by the medication they took.

I have been fascinated by some of the side effects people have reported with the Oxford-AstraZeneca Covid vaccine.

Dr Max Pemberton (pictured) said that all medicines have side effects of some sort and said some of the side effects reported are nothing to do with the drug at all

Flatulence, excessive blinking, insect bites and even, bizarrely, losing teeth have all been cited by people as reactions to the jab in a 65-page list of alleged reactions compiled by the UK’s drug regulator.

The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) has, of course, dismissed these, but it goes to show how our brains like to make associations and draw conclusions about causation.

Detecting patterns and drawing conclusions from these apparent patterns is an important part of how we humans learn and how we make decisions.

Some people have even argued that the brain is, in fact, little more than a highly evolved pattern-recognition machine.

Often the patterns our brains see are real, but sometimes they are just chance. The problem is that our brain isn’t good at differentiating between these.

Psychologists have called this ‘patternicity’ — finding patterns and meaning in meaningless noise. This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. Our ancestors had to quickly make links and associations between cause and effect as a matter of survival. Sometimes it would be wrong, but sometimes it would be correct.

We are programmed to find patterns — even when there aren’t any — as this helps provide at least some semblance of order on an otherwise chaotic and unpredictable world.

Our brains are hardwired to look for recognisable images among random shapes. This explains why someone can see the face of Elvis on a piece of burnt toast, for example, or a face in clouds.

The same is true for events: our brains desperately try to find a meaning among random occurrences even though they may be down to chance.

But, as with the case of worry about vaccines, this can sometimes lead us to illogical or unhelpful conclusions.

It reminds me of when I was a medical student and I did a GP attachment with an elderly doctor, who was about to retire.

Flatulence, excessive blinking and insect bites have been reported as reactions while the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency has dismissed these (stock image)

Working with this GP was fascinating because he had the kind of experience and knowledge that cannot be learnt in a lecture or from a textbook.

He told me of how, a few years previously, he had been holding a vaccination clinic.

Although the link between the MMR vaccine and autism has since been categorically disproved, the doctor who undertook the research struck off the medical register and the original piece of research retracted from the journal in which it was published , the idea that this vaccine can be dangerous still persisted in some people’s minds.

Even today, many parents worry that, despite the evidence of the immense benefit that vaccination brings, it is still risky.

The GP had done his best to reassure his patients and, slowly, more and more parents were coming to have their children immunised.

One mother asked questions about the safety of vaccination and, after the GP had allayed her fears, she eventually agreed for her son to receive the jab.

The child was crying so the doctor put the child on his knee. He was about to administer the vaccine when, suddenly, the child had a seizure. It didn’t last long, but the child didn’t receive the vaccine and was sent to the local hospital.

As the GP explained to me, if he had vaccinated the child a minute earlier, the child would have had the seizure after the vaccine and the mother would — understandably — have been convinced for ever more that the vaccine had caused the seizure.

ThAT mother would then also have told every other parent about her experience and it would have caused great worry and upset.

Even if he had tried to explain that there was no evidence that the jab caused seizures, and it was just a coincidence, no one would have believed him.

In fact, he said he, too, would probably have thought the vaccine had caused the seizure.

Just a few seconds difference, he and a whole community would have falsely abandoned science for what they thought they had seen with their own eyes.

It was an invaluable lesson in making sure that we all trust in the science, not simply what we think is true. 

Helena Bonham Carter has spoken about how her beloved dogs helped heal her family after her split from Hollywood director Tim Burton and Dr Max agrees that dogs are brilliant as they 'distract, love unconditionally and provide new structure' which is 'just what a child needs when faced with the psychological turmoil of a divorce' 


Helena Bonham Carter (left) has spoken about how her beloved dogs helped heal her family after her split from Hollywood director Tim Burton. She credits getting dogs with helping to remake the family unit for her two children.

I agree that dogs are brilliant. They distract, love unconditionally and provide new structure — just what a child needs when faced with the psychological turmoil of a divorce.

Dogs are also just fun to be around. In fact, I saw the impact a dog can have on a child’s life when I was a junior doctor. Christian was nine, had cerebral palsy and had had several painful operations to help his walking. But he fell while at school and, for months since, had been confined to his wheelchair.

The surgeons were baffled and were considering another op. But before this could happen, his mother reported that her son had suddenly started walking again. ‘Our neighbours got a new dog and it keeps getting into our garden. One minute Christian was sitting down — the next he was outside playing with it.’ The consultant smiled: ‘Well, it looks like that dog has done what none of us could do.’

I read with joy about Kirstie Allsopp’s litter-picking campaign in last week’s Mail. I’m a great fan of litter-picking and go most evenings. I do it as a mindfulness exercise but it also gives a sense of making things a little better.

During my training in mental health, it was drummed into us that our environment has a huge impact on what happens inside our heads. From a psychological perspective, the litter sends a message of disrespect and decay. Litter-picking counters this: it sends a message that you care about your community. Plus it gives you a little boost because you’re doing something good.

Dr Max prescribes a set of Swedish dumbbells which are adjustable and make home workouts easier and more effective


I’ve just bought a set of Nuobell Swedish-designed adjustable dumbbells and they’ve made home workouts so much easier and more effective. They are also rather beautiful. One dumbbell can be adjusted from 2 kg right up to 32 kg simply by turning the handle.

Easy to store and taking up minimal space, now I’ve got these, I’m questioning whether I need to go back to the gym at all. From £450 for a set, gym kituk.com.

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