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Desiree Jennings

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One could question if the media attention would have been as great if she wasn't… um, what do you call it, "fit."
Needles are scary
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Pricks against pricks

Desiree Townsend (formerly Desiree Jennings) (c. 1984–)[1][2][3] is an American woman from Ashburn, Virginia, who became part of the vaccine manufactroversy in 2009. That October, the aspiring cheerleader claimed she had acquired a rare disease from a flu shot. Her story went viral[4] when she was was shown on TV and the web making unusual movements.

The video footage was viewed by many experts, and they felt her movements were not representative of any known or even possible movement disorder.[5] Shortly after, she was miraculously "cured" with chelation therapy.[6]

Townsend has since taken back her claims, particularly since she got a degree in biology - she says she was genuinely ill, but no longer blames the vaccine. She now warns against the anti-vax movement.[7]


Before her shot, Jennings was physically healthy and in good shape. She was apparently a "Washington Redskins Ambassador", which is akin to being on the farm team for NFL cheerleaders. After her story broke, media reports started calling her an "NFL Cheerleader", which was incorrect, but this error was overshadowed by the media's inaccurate fawning over an attractive young woman with a very videogenic story.

Jennings reported having gotten a flu shot on August 23, 2009, and said she developed flu-like symptoms soon after. While these symptoms are sometimes reported after a flu shot, studies have been unable to find a causal link.[8] After September 7, she was reported to have "fainting spells" and "convulsions". According to available reports, however, no clear physical cause was found for her unusual symptoms.

According to the earliest available report,[9] Jennings' neurologists were scratching their heads, but her physical therapist diagnosed her with dystonia. This may or may not be true, but if it is true, it raises an immediate red flag, because dystonia is a neurological condition, and it's implausible that a neurologist would miss it while a physical therapist would catch it. More likely, her neurologists ruled dystonia out, but her physical therapist either misdiagnosed it or just happened to mention the possibility, which Jennings then seized on as an "official" diagnosis. We don't really know, since Jennings hasn't released her medical records, and the media reports about her case history have evolved over time.

To this date, there is no clear evidence of her supposed 'dystonia', leaving many to believe that the young woman fabricated the entire story for publicity.

Media coverage[edit]

The local paper Loudoun-Times Mirror first broke the story on October 12, 2009.[9] That's probably the single best mainstream report about the bare facts of her case, before the exaggerations began to set in. On the October 13, local Fox affiliate WTTG (Channel 5) aired an appalling, sensationalistic travesty of a report,[4] promptly outdone three days later by the national tabloid TV magazine Inside Edition.[10] YouTube got a hold of it,[11] shit hit the fan, and a million people learned that ZOMG FLU SHOT POISION!!1!!!

Reality check[edit]

The world is full of interesting and unusual neurologic conditions, but Jennings' symptoms, simply put, didn't make any sense. She could walk sideways, walk backward, run, and jog, and even competed in an 8 km race after her big story got out, earning credulous praise from Fox 5.[12] But when she tried to walk forwards (or when people started asking uncomfortable questions about her condition), she started to flail her limbs, jerk her body, and speak with a bizarre accent.[9] Supposedly, startling sounds, like hip-hop and techno, made it worse, but Coldplay made it better.[9] One of Coldplay's songs has a lyric about being "stuck in reverse [...] and I will try to fix you", which is pretty hilarious if you're a terrible person.[13]

Anyway, for once in history, Bill O'Reilly came through as the voice of reason (doubtless a sign of the apocalypse). On October 16, The O'Reilly Factor interviewed Leigh Vinocur, an emergency medicine doctor from the University of Maryland, who explained:

A couple of movement disorder specialists had been looking at this video, and they all really feel that this is possibly psychogenic, meaning that it isn't caused by the flu, it isn't caused by the vaccine. It doesn't mean she can help herself, it doesn't mean it's voluntary, she obviously has some problems, but in fact, he told me they're using it to illustrate for their neurology residents a psychogenic movement disorder.[14]

Feeling the heat, Fox 5 interviewed Dr. Stephen Grill of the Parkinson's and Movement Disorders Center of Maryland, who sounded the same note:

I haven't examined her, I haven't met with her or anything. But in viewing the videotapes, the way she walks does not appear to be true dystonia. And the speech as well — it's more of a stuttering speech, which is not common in dystonia... based upon watching the video it appears more like what we call a psychogenic movement disorder. And what this means is that the mind or the brain is sort of playing tricks on the person to bring out these movements.[15]

Random internet people started harassing the dystonia community about Jennings' case. Dystonia is a real syndrome with physical causes, and the dystonia community wasn't happy to be dragged into this mess. The Dystonia Medical Research Foundation said:

Because of the concern of individuals with dystonia as to whether or not to get a flu shot because of this reported case, we have sought the opinion of dystonia experts on this case. Based on the footage that has been shared with the public, it is their unanimous consensus that this case does not appear to be dystonia.[16]

Neurologist and skeptic Steven Novella criticized media reports on the case as credulous and sensationalistic:

The movements and symptoms that Ms. Jennings displays on the public videos I have seen... are not compatible with the diagnosis of dystonia, or any other movement disorder. Dystonia is one type of involuntary contraction of muscles. It can be reduced or exacerbated by certain movements or positions, and there are “task specific” dystonia, such as writer’s cramp, that come out only with certain activity. Jennings does not display the type of movements that are consistent with dystonia. Her speech and movement are, however, very suggestive of a psychogenic disorder.[17]

Nail in the coffin[edit]

Once the internet was buzzing with the story, Maryland Department of Health epidemiologist Rene Najera found Jennings' case report in the "Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System", which tracks this kind of thing. Her VAERS report reads in part, "The admitting neurologist felt that there was a strong psychogenic component to the symptomology, and made a final diagnosis of weakness."[18]

We're going to hell[edit]

And enter the quacks![edit]

On October 15, two days after Fox 5 aired their first story on Jennings, they reported that Generation Rescue, the notorious anti-vax nutcases led by Jenny McCarthy, had taken up her case.[19] Generation Rescue referred her to Rashid Buttar, a quackish osteopath[20] known for his use of dangerous alternative medicine practices and history of ethical complaints.[21][22][23] Buttar decided that Jennings suffered from "a number of conditions including but not limited to Acute, Viral Post Immunization Encephalopathy and Mercury Toxicity with secondary respiratory and neurological deficits".[24] This is more or less what he diagnoses everyone with, and it doesn't make a damn bit of sense.

Anyway, Buttar gave his implausible and astonishingly self-serving account to the Robert Scott Bell Show,[25] an alt-med podcast on the lunatic fringe "Republic Broadcasting Network":

She was actually seizing, having a seizure probably every forty-five to sixty seconds. There was a camera crew there, they videotaped what was going on. She was having periods of anoxia where she stopped breathing anywhere from fifteen to thirty seconds. Her progression of her pathology was so unbelievable. They had to carry her in, and I had to wrestle with whether or not we had to admit her to the hospital to stabilize her but I knew once I put her into the hospital there was no turning back, and we had to do what we could do in our controlled environment... That was Monday morning. By noon we had her stable to the point that she was able to breathe without going into a seizure...

She came in this morning, she felt better, looked better, but still unable to talk. We continued with our treatments, and I told [her] once we got ready to hang the DMPS and the EDTA and some of the other, the MTEs that are certain IVs that we do, I told her that now the magic should start, prepared her for what I expected to happen...

It's not just chelation but chelation was definitely a part of it... we had to the first day stabilize her because she was in a hyper-responsive mode and so we had to stabilize her. We gave her a couple of different IVs to stimulate the lymphatics to help build her nutritional status up because I knew that she hasn't been eating. I couldn't even do an exam on her without her having seizures so, we basically prepped her, we got her ready we got her stable, and then the second day was more aggressive treatment, where we were hitting her for natural forms of antivirals in IVs - you know which one I'm talking about that's one of them - and then on top of that there was a couple of other things including the chelators, we gave her two different chelators, and then IV antioxidants... The best I could have hoped for yesterday, she did 20% more than that. Today, my gut told me that by Wednesday this woman will be back. I was wrong, it happened today...

You can see the incredible progression, this woman was in such severe respiratory stridor, her bronchioles were going into spasms because of the toxicity from, part of it could be the attenuated virus, certainly some of it was the mercury, but her whole system was starting to shut down. And she told her husband she didn't think she had that much left to live. I told the president of Generation Rescue that if he hadn't gotten her to me when he did...

Anybody who says that this woman was dealing with a psychogenic issue, it was in her head, they are - we don't even have to address it because they're just going to embarrass themselves. Because when you see the video of her when she came in, when she was seizing, when she couldn't breathe, when she was going through fifteen to thirty second lapses of - physically incapable of ventilating, anybody who says that, they will be literally laughed at. They're gonna lose any realm of respect, if they had any, and those statements are already being made all over the Internet. I was sent two different links from friends of mine that I had asked to pray that God guide me in the right manner and to help this patient as well, as best as we can ask the Creator to help and guide us. These people sent me links saying these unbelievable people are already going out, the doctors are going out there and saying that you know, this woman, it's in her head, it's this, it's that, she's faking it... They have to distance themselves from the truth because they know there's no way they can deal with the fallout.[26]

Jennings started a website (now defunct) to promote her story and advocate "true informed consent", which appeared to be distinguished from regular "informed consent" by the presence of nonsensical, unfounded claims about vaccine toxicity.[27] On November 4, she posted a video thanking her supporters, in which she shows no apparent symptoms of dystonia.[28]

Novella to the rescue[edit]

Steve Novella was quick to point out something he'd posted before the Buttar "cure" had become public:

Jennings is now in the hands of the Generation Rescue anti-vaccine quacks. I predict that they will be able to 'cure' her, because psychogenic disorders can and do spontaneously resolve. They will then claim victory for their quackery in curing a (non-existent) vaccine injury.[29]

Novella referenced Buttar's disgraceful professional history, explained once again that Jennings' symptoms were best explained as psychogenic illness, and exposed Buttar's scientific and medical claims as nonsensical:

If Jennings really had dystonia or any biological brain injury from toxicity, removing the toxin might prevent further progression and allow the slow process of recovery to begin. But brain damage does not immediately reverse itself once the cause is removed. It is possible for dystonia to be a side effect of certain medications, and it can immediately resolve once that medication is stopped or reversed. But in that situation we are dealing with an effect of an active blood level of a pharmaceutical agent – something which is inherently reversible. We are not dealing with damage or injury.

Further, it is highly implausible that Jennings (even if she received the highest dose of thimerosal from the flu vaccine – 25 micrograms) had any mercury left in her system from the vaccine she received in August. Mercury from vaccines is removed naturally within days, and would not be hanging around in significant amounts two months later.

However, now Jennings herself, and Dr. Buttar, report that Jennings began to improve while still sitting in the chair and receiving her chelation therapy, and within 36 hours her symptoms were completely gone. First, let me say that I am very happy Ms. Jennings’ symptoms have resolved. Hopefully now she can just go on with her life. But to me, this impossibly rapid recovery is a dramatic confirmation that her symptoms were psychogenic to begin with. It is simply implausible that brain injury from mercury toxicity could be reversed so quickly – especially when you consider that Dr. Buttar had Jennings at death’s door.

The whole affair has now come full circle. To scientists and skeptics, this is an unfortunate story of a young woman with a psychogenic illness who unfortunately was exploited by some headline grabbing media and the anti-vaccine movement. To the anti-vaccinationists and the right-wing conspiracy health freedom nuts, this is yet another story of an injury at the hands of evil vaccines, and all attempts to figure out what was really happening here are just lame attempts by the medical establishment to cover their behinds.[29]

An "absolutely amazing, amazing actress"[edit]

As a Washington Redskins "ambassador", Jennings was employed by Dan Snyder, a billionaire who also happens to own the Dick Clark Productions television production company and prime stock in Red Zebra Broadcasting. He's also the founder of Snyder Healthcare (now Ventiv, or sometimes inVentiv, Health)[30] which makes "alternative medicines", and after Paramount Pictures decided Scientology (and anti-doctor) spokesman Tom Cruise was a little too crazy for them, Snyder stepped in to bankroll the Mission Impossible franchise.[31] Dick Clark Productions is in charge of Dick Clark's New Year's Rockin' Eve, which rang in 2012 with a giant anti-vaccination ad in Times Square.[32]

Jennings has said that it would take an "absolutely amazing, amazing actress" to fake her symptoms.[33] Far more amazing, for example, than the actresses currently in her boss's films. Snyder took the bait, getting Jennings in touch with his alternative medicine celebrity "colleagues" Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey.

A note on psychogenic illness[edit]

Psychogenic illnesses go by many names, including somatization disorder (also called "psychosomatic") and conversion disorder. These are different from "malingering" and from simply "faking it". In the late 19th century, Charcot, Freud, and other medical scientists noted that some patients came in with paralysis that did not follow known neurologic pathways and therefore could not be strictly physical. Somataform disorders are treated like any other illness, without moral judgement. Unfortunately, people with these disorders are easy prey for quacks and charlatans.

As for the case of Desiree Jennings...Well, let's just say she would have a thriving career in acting.

Rescued from Generation Rescue[edit]

Jennings now says that she had been used by Generation Rescue at a time when she was vulnerable. She went to school and got a degree in biochemistry and molecular biology from the University of California, Irvine in 2019. She also took the COVID-19 vaccine and booster when they became available, and would like to find a job at a biotechnology company that manufactures vaccines.[2]

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. Medical Mystery or Hoax: Did Cheerleader Fake a Muscle Disorder? by Jim Avila & Avila Cohen (July 22, 2010, 10:52 AM) ABC News.
  2. 2.0 2.1 The ‘Flu Shot Cheerleader’ is back — with a warning about the anti-vaccine movement by Brandy Zadrozny (Aug. 4, 2023, 12:00 PM PDT) NBC News.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Woman disabled by flu shot reaction Fox 5
  5. Neurologica Blog--Desiree Jennings--The Plot Thickens
  8. Misconceptions about Seasonal Flu and Flu Vaccines, CDC
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 The flu, a shot to the system Loudoun Times (archived from August 3, 2012).
  10. Woman Says Flu Shot Triggered Rare Neurological Disorder, Inside Edition
  11. Desiree Jennings's Story Causes Flu Shot Controversy, Inside Edition
  12. Disabled Woman Completes 8K, Fox 5
  13. "Fix You" Lyrics
  14. Flu shot fears, Fox News
  15. Desiree Jennings: Is it Dystonia? Fox 5
  16. Dystonia and flu vaccine in the media
  17. The Dystonia-Flu shot case NeuroLogica
  18. Records show case of dystonia is psychogenic and not related to flu vaccine
  19. Celebs Reach Out to Desiree Jennings, Fox 5
  20. Meet the Providers Center for Advanced Medicine and Clinical Research
  21. Alternative doctor to get new hearing Charlotte Observer
  22. Notice of charges and allegations; Notice of hearing
  23. Huntersville physician faces revised charges of unprofessional conduct, Quoted from the Charlotte Observer
  24. NFL Cheerleader Ambassador Disabled by 2009 Flu Shot On Road to Recovery
  25. EXCLUSIVE: Flu shot victim Desiree Jenning cured of [sic
  26. Bestselling Anti-Obama Fabulist Appears On White Supremacist Radio Show, Hatewatch
  27. Desiree Jennings - The Cause. Archived from the roiginal at
  28. Desiree Jennings Update 10-29-2009
  29. 29.0 29.1 Well That Didn’t Take Long – Another Dystonia Case Follow Up, NeuroLogica
  30. inVentiv Health Company Profile
  31. Dan Snyder accepts latest mission: Tom Cruise
  32. Jenny McCarthy hosts New Year's Eve with 5000 sq. ft anti-vaccine ad
  33. 20/20 interview with Desiree Jennings