Anti-Vaxxers Hijacked An Unvaccinated Teen’s Death To Use As Propaganda Against Vaccinations

An unvaccinated Tom Van Dijk died from cardiac arrest, but anti-vaxxers still branded his school and parents as "child killers".

Tom van Dijk Virginia Nicholls Anti-Vax Teen Death Vaccinations

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On August 21, 17-year-old Tom van Dijk died after suffering cardiac arrest on a family swimming trip — and anti-vaxxers desperately want you to believe this was because of a recent Pfizer vaccination.

However, Dijk — a Year 12 student at St Pius X College in Chatswood — was never vaccinated against COVID-19. In fact, the teenager wasn’t even eligible for the vaccine because of his age and tested negative for coronavirus while being treated at Sydney’s Royal North Shore Hospital for cardiac arrest.

But rumours about the teen’s alleged vaccine-related death quickly spread through the anti-vaxx community and was immediately hijacked to generate public distrust in vaccines.

So How Did The Rumours Start?

On Saturday night, Tom van Dijk died after he went into cardiac arrest during a family boating trip. He was unable to be revived. The following morning, on Sunday, St Pius principal John Couani informed students and parents of this sad and unexpected death.

That same night, Virginia Nicholls — a now-retired ABC political reporter and former pharmaceutical executive for vaccine manufacturer Merck, who proudly attended the infamous Freedom Rally and called it an “outstanding success” — tweeted false claims about the teen dying “soon after” getting Pfizer at a mass vaccination clinic.

“A Year 12 student from a Sydney Catholic College has reportedly died of a heart attack shortly after receiving the Pfizer jab at the mass vaccination clinic at Homebush,” Nicholls tweeted. “A champion swimmer, he went into cardiac arrest after a swim. Unconfirmed reports of two other teen deaths.”

According to The Australian, Nicholls claimed that she had two reliable sources to back up her tweet: A “highly credible” doctor from Royal North Shore who “swears on his life [that Tom] was vaccinated” and then someone from the Coroner’s office who allegedly verified the doctor’s claims.

But this just was not true, and 12 hours later, once a number of Dijk’s friends and fellow St Pius students informed Nicholls that she was misinformed, the former journalist deleted her tweet and apologised for her “genuine and terrible error”.

Sadly the backflip came 12 hours too late, as anti-vaxxers ran with the false information that came out of the mouth of someone who is meant to be a “trusted source” of information as a former journalist and as someone who had apparently worked at a company that manufactured vaccines for years. From there, social media posts about vaccines allegedly killing young, healthy children flooded Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp messages. Even under Nicholls’ original tweet, false information continued to pile on as anti-vaxxers started to weaponise Dijk’s death.

“His parents have written in the classroom WhatsApp that there are suppression orders in place so that his recent Pfizer jab cannot be mentioned in the school’s letter, nor in the media,” one person incorrectly claimed. “Will pray for his soul and his family.”

“Why should young people be part of this experiment when there is a 99.8 percent chance of surviving COVID?” asked another.

“So many teenage boys are being diagnosed with myocarditis after being jabbed, and tragically Tom has had his life taken away.”

The Anti-Vaxxer Reaction And Actual Truth

Once Nicholls sparked the rumour, swarms of anti-vaxxers began targetting those that knew Dijk personally — including family, friends and school staff — brandishing them as “child killers” for forcing the teen to get vaccinated and for bowing down to alleged “suppression orders” that stopped them from telling the truth.

“On Monday it completely gained a life of its own. We had calls from across the country, and even the US ringing to confirm if it was true,” Principal Couani told The Australian. “I was horrified at the distress it was causing to Tom’s family…they’ve tried not to focus on it but it’s very hard.

“The passing of a wonderful, gifted and talented man had been hijacked by this movement, and all the misinformation about vaccination was feeding an agenda that had nothing to do with the truth.”

The abuse became so severe that St Pius X College felt the need to quash the falsehoods swirling around the unfortunate death of one of their school’s beloved students.

“The school community is profoundly grieving Tom’s passing, but also celebrating his wonderful gifts and we pay tribute to Tom as an outstanding academic student, gifted sportsman and accomplished musician,” Principal Couani wrote to Facebook on behalf of the school and the Dijk family. “Despite the clear communication from the College, there have been many insensitive and grossly inaccurate reports on social media.”

After clearing up that Dijk was not vaccinated and not even eligible for the jab due to the school not being in an LGA of concern, Couani shared how “disappointing” it was that anti-vaxxers were sharing these “grossly inaccurate reports” surrounding the teen’s untimely death.

“It is very disappointing that a statement such as this needs to be made and the College now asks that respect is shown to allow for the family and community to grieve the loss of this brilliant and talented young man.”

With the growing backlash, Virginia Nicholls also released a public statement on Facebook to again apologise for her part in the spread of misinformation regarding Tom van Dijk’s death.

“I’ve received messages from friends of the Sydney boy who died of a heart attack, claiming he didn’t have the vaccine. I removed the post within minutes of being contacted and have sincerely apologised to the school principal and parents,” Nicholls wrote on Facebook. “This was a genuine and terrible error of judgment, for which I am dreadfully sorry and deeply regret.”

“I would never intentionally mislead or cause pain to others. My entire reason for being is to help, not harm.”

Nicholls also told the Daily Mail that she was receiving “death threats” for her role in fueling the rumour about Dijk’s death, while also claiming that she isn’t against vaccinations despite constantly posting anti-vax content online.

“I’ve apologised to the headmaster, he’s forgiven me and he’s very supportive,” she told the Daily Mail. “He’s shocked at the death threats that I’ve received as a result of it.”

“I put up the apology, I’m not anti-vaccination, my kids are fully vaccinated… but there are very serious side effects being reported with Pfizer and AstraZeneca.”

Anti-Vaxxers Co-Opting Deaths Is Nothing New

Sadly, even with an apology, this isn’t the first time a person’s death has been co-opted by the anti-vaccination community to build distrust around vaccines. Earlier this week, the Independent reported on Debra Cahill’s harrowing experience of her 22-year-old sister’s death continuously getting hijacked by the anti-vax community over the past six months.

Since her death in March, images of Nicole Cahill have been circulated online with captions claiming that the young Irish woman died from the COVID-19 vaccine. When the Cahill family asked for the misinformation to be taken down, the family were called “murderers” for letting Nicole take the vaccine.

“Nicole died on the second of March. And we buried her on the seventh, which was the following Sunday. And then, it wasn’t even two days after she died, that the first post had gone up online,” Cahill told RTÉ’s Liveline. “And it was basically like a picture, a screengrab [from] and a picture of her vaccine card, and the phrase, ‘another young life gone from the vaccine’, which wasn’t the case.”

“To be using this to deceive people, and completely degrading the family and degrading that person’s memory for your own personal tactics is just wrong.”

Similarly, when boxing legend Marvin Hagler died of natural causes in March of this year, anti-vaccination groups tried to claim that he was “murdered” with his death being a vaccine side effect.

While Hagler’s death was unexpected, anti-vax groups ran with the untrue claim that the boxer was “in the ICU fighting after-effects of the vaccine” after his rival, Thomas Hearns, incorrectly posted that information online. Just a few hours after he made the false claims, Hearns quickly retracted his statement and told his followers that “this is not an anti-vaccine campaign… it’s outrageous to have that in mind during the passing of a king, legend, father, husband a so much more”.

However, anti-vaxxers still ran with the information that suited their agenda — even when Hagler’s wife confirmed that the boxer’s death “for sure wasn’t [from] the vaccine”. Just as we saw happen when Virginia Nicholls blindly claimed things about Dijk’s death without first fact-checking.

“The vaccine killed Marvin Hagler,” said one person at the time. “Maybe the death of someone famous will wake the vaccine death deniers. Lockdowns, masks, vaccines do more harm than good. How many more people have to die?” claimed another. “If a high profile celebrity dies of COVID it’s front-page news, if it’s due to the vaccine they don’t even mention it,” added someone else. “They use COVID to keep us petrified.”

Unfortunately, while deaths being co-opted by anti-vaxxers is clearly nothing new, Tom van Dijk’s case proves that the new focus for those against vaccinations is now on children. This is because anti-vaxxers are losing their hold on formerly vaccine-hesitant adults as national vaccination rates rise at record rates.

Now, it’s just abundantly clear that the only way these groups can continue to push their agenda is by pushing fabricated lies — through stories like COVID vaccines killing unvaccinated teenagers — to try and stop vaccinations for children, too.

Michelle Rennex is a senior writer at Junkee. She tweets at @michellerennex