The ‘Flu Shot Cheerleader’ returns, this time to warn about the dangers of the anti-vaccine movement.

The 'Flu Shot Cheerleader' returns, this time to warn about the dangers of the anti-vaccine movement.

Desiree Townsend had brief fame in 2009.


Desiree Jennings was her married name at the time. Many people nowadays would recognize her just as the “Flu Shot Cheerleader.”


Desiree, a stunning cheerleader, was certain that a mystery ailment was brought on by her annual flu vaccination. Leaders of the anti-vaccine movement adopted Desiree as a new poster girl, in the vein of model spokeswoman Jenny McCarthy, when news coverage of her new infirmity went viral, focusing mostly on her twisted, jerky stride, which vanished when she sprinted or walked backward.


The question of whether or not to trust Desiree was sparked by her mysterious symptoms. And almost as fast as they had exalted her, the media and the anti-vaccine movement turned against her. Desiree almost vanished when she was mocked as a hoaxer and her condition discredited.


Desiree still wants to discuss it, even after 14 years. For a long period, she felt guilty, but she has now changed her perspective. She claims she had genuine, devastating symptoms. Regarding the vaccine’s significance, she is far less clear.


But what she really wants to discuss is the “PR machine” of the anti-vaccine movement and how it allegedly pounced on her tale when she was sick and the doctors who were supposed to help her couldn’t. She wants to share her story of being cast aside by the movement once she became an inconvenience.


And she hopes to issue a caution. When it comes to the unverified and emotionally charged testimonials that fuel the present anti-vaccine movement, Desiree’s story is one of the oldest and best-known instances. It’s important to remember what happened to her during this time when the movement was perhaps at its strongest.


During the peak of the Covid epidemic, rumors and baseless worries about vaccines reached all-time highs. Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the movement’s de facto head, is running for president, giving him a massive new platform to spread his discredited conspiracy theories and pseudoscience. The number of children being vaccinated has decreased, and the major anti-vaccine organizations are flush with funds.


New, more organized, and more aggressive individuals have emerged as the central ones in Desiree’s tale, replacing others who have died or gone on. The strategies remain the same, however: Find new accounts of purported vaccine injury from vulnerable populations, then broadcast them to an avid and growing audience as evidence for baseless claims that promote vaccination skepticism.


Desiree says this of the group who recruited her: “These people are just going to use you.” What does she recommend for those who are just now catching up?




Desiree, a communications manager at AOL and a cheerleading ambassador for the Washington Commanders football team, was 25 years old and freshly married in August of 2009. (The team gave her a modest wage not to cheer but to give the impression that she did by having her wear a cheerleader costume, although one with a little more modesty, and by interacting with spectators in the luxury suites.)


She had a seasonal flu vaccination from a drugstore in Virginia, and then she became ill approximately a week later. Her body began trembling violently, and she began passing out shortly after the fever, vomiting, and weakness appeared. When Desiree’s body revolted, she blamed the vaccination.


The following account is based on media coverage from the time, interviews with Desiree and her former colleagues and family members who asked that their names not be used to protect them, a 236-page special federal court decision dismissing her vaccine-injury claim, and videos recorded by the anti-vaccine organization Generation Rescue for a planned documentary, which Desiree provided to NBC News.


Desiree spent the following month visiting several clinics and hospitals for various ailments, including vertigo and exhaustion. It made her ill to the point that she couldn’t eat, move, or even sleep. She felt a scorching sensation all over, but it was especially intense in her arms and legs, which began to twitch violently. Her articulation was jumbled. Her brain hurt. A former coworker of Desiree’s recalled how she had changed from the bubbly, successful person she had known for many years. She said, “Suddenly Desiree became the sickest person you knew.”


One of the neurologists who saw Desiree at the time said that her symptoms were “extremely peculiar.” She saw neurologists, cardiologists, family doctors, infectious disease experts, rheumatologists, and internists. They took blood samples from Desiree and ordered MRIs, spinal taps, chest X-rays, and EKGs to rule out dozens of diseases, including lupus, Lyme disease, Guillain-Barré syndrome, and others.

After exhausting all other possibilities, some physicians hypothesized that Desiree’s unique illness was “psychogenic,” meaning that her symptoms were caused by stress or some underlying psychological disease rather than by her intentionally making them up. A psychiatrist was recommended to her. Dystonia, a disease of neurological movement that may result in involuntary muscular spasms, was brought up separately by a physical therapist.


Pediatric neurologist in Austin, TX, Dr. Daniel Freedman, has shown that children with functional neurological diseases (formerly called psychogenic neurological illnesses) “often feel victimized by the health care system.”


Through Facebook posts and videos, Desiree supposedly informed her friends and family that she had been diagnosed with dystonia and that her symptoms had been related to the flu shot. Desiree did not initially have that diagnosis recorded in her medical chart.


Desiree’s unsubstantiated assertions concerning the vaccination were repeated in a local newspaper, then in television news stories, and subsequently in national news outlets, all without any resistance.


Desiree’s story was initially told in a column by a friend who is a community blogger for the Loudoun Times-Mirror in Virginia. The story was picked up by local affiliates of NBC, CBS, and Fox within two days. After then, a piece on the TV tabloid newsmagazine “Inside Edition” depicted Desiree’s symptoms: She stamps her foot, then squats. Her limbs jerk and twitch wildly. It’s close, but she manages to stay upright. Her voice is repetitive and nasal, and she speaks slowly and slurred. When Desiree takes a step backward, the odd sensations she’d been experiencing vanish. She walks and chats normally.


“Her jerking and twisting are the result of uncontrollable muscle contractions,” Les Trent of the BBC reports. For the time being, “there is no known cure.”


Desiree’s tale went viral, with footage of her TV appearances receiving millions of views in less than a week.


A gorgeous cheerleader who becomes mysteriously unable to perform after receiving a vaccination was a ratings smash. “Inside Edition” anchor Deborah Norville said it was “one of the most talked-about stories we’ve ever had.” However, several medical professionals expressed skepticism about the reported symptoms of dystonia in Desiree, taking to online forums and blogs to express their views.


Among the skeptics was Dr. Paul Offit, who collaborated in the development of the rotavirus vaccine and currently directs the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Mercy Hospital of Philadelphia.



“When I first saw that video, I felt so badly for her,” Offit said. “Oh, God, this is going to be so hard for her,” I reflected.


Desiree went to several medical professionals, but no one could help her. And she didn’t think they were getting her. There was a problem with her digestion. Because of this, she was unable to move. She was unable to do her duties.


The physicians would just ignore me, and it was really aggravating,” Desiree added. To paraphrase, “They made it seem like I was an idiot, crazy, or it was just stress.”


However, Desiree sensed that there were other people who believed her. They assured her that they could diagnose and treat her condition.


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