The Corona pandemic and ongoing mass vaccinations raise the question of the nocebo mechanisms involved. Since immunization is usually administered to healthy people as a preventive health measure, adverse events (AE) following immunization are less accepted and could contribute to vaccine hesitancy. Assuming that vaccinees experience nocebo responses, the aim of this meta-analysis was to investigate the effect sizes of solicited adverse events (or assumed reactogenicity) reported in placebo groups in RCTs on seasonal influenza vaccination.
Literature search via PubMed, Web of Science, and CENTRAL was conducted considering gray literature. Only RCTs with placebo groups using pharmacologically inert substances (like saline) were included. Quality was assessed using Cochrane Collaboration’s Risk of Bias Tool. Effect sizes were estimated using a random mixed effects model based on k = 31 studies covering 14,326 participants in placebo groups.
Reported solicited AEs in placebo groups showed significant effect sizes of proportions (ES). In k = 13 analyzed placebo groups, 35 % of the participants reported at least one solicited systemic AE (p = 0.007). The most common particular solicited systemic AEs were headache (k = 27; 17 %; p = 0.001), malaise (k = 13; 12 %; p = 0.004), and hyperhidrosis (k = 4; 12 %; p < 0.001) within one week after vaccination.
The results show significant solicited AEs in placebo groups, indicating substantial nocebo responses after vaccination. Based on the fact that most vaccination programs include similar groups of healthy people, we expect that comparable nocebo effects occur during other campaigns. Health care professionals should be aware of the nocebo response and take action to prevent or decrease the burden of adverse events following immunization. Fear of side effects must be addressed early in order to diminish vaccine hesitancy. Prospero identifier: CRD42020156287, October 2019.

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