After publishing a few articles about Katie Couric‘s false balanced anti-Gardasil episode that completely ignored real science broadcast on her eponymous TV talk show, Katie, I thought I could move on to other topics in skepticism. I, and dozens of other writers on the internet, had chided, criticized and lambasted her using anecdotes from two mothers to impugn the safety of Gardasil (formally known as the HPV quadrivalent vaccine and also called Silgard in Europe), while ignoring solid science and medical research that supports the safety and effectiveness of the vaccine.
Well, today, Couric issued an apology, of sorts, regarding the episode. Her introductory paragraph, basically says it all:
Last week we devoted several segments on my TV talk show to the issues surrounding the HPV (human papillomavirus) vaccine. Learning about this relatively recent preventive measure is tremendously important, and I felt it was a subject well worth exploring. Following the show, and in fact before it even aired, there was criticism that the program was too anti-vaccine and anti-science, and in retrospect, some of that criticism was valid. We simply spent too much time on the serious adverse events that have been reported in very rare cases following the vaccine. More emphasis should have been given to the safety and efficacy of the HPV vaccines. As someone who has spent the last 15 years relaying important medical information with the goal of improving public health, it is critical to me that people know the facts.
In other words, because of the withering criticism, she decides to backtrack on what she was implying through her lengthy interviews with two women who believed, without any scientific or medical evidence whatsoever, that their daughters were harmed by the vaccine. These two mothers, who may have been sincere or may have been influenced by antivaccination lies, provided nothing that would have indicated that the vaccines had causal effects on the girls. In fact, just by observation, one girl appeared to be seriously depressed, and who should have been given proper medical treatment by professionals.
Couric also stated that,
Nevertheless, concerns have been raised about reactions to the vaccination. Unfortunately, there’s no question reactions can occur, as with all vaccines. The vast majority of these reactions to the HPV vaccine are not serious, consisting of pain at the injection site, fever, dizziness, and nausea. More severe reactions are sometimes reported, however. Some people say their children have suffered from a variety of medical problems after the vaccination, and there have even been a few reports of death.
As a journalist, I felt that we couldn’t simply ignore these reports. That’s why we had two mothers on the show who reported adverse reactions after their daughters had been vaccinated for HPV. One could hardly get out of bed for three years, and the other tragically died. There is no definitive proof that these two situations were related to the vaccine. Every life is important. However, the time spent telling these stories was disproportionate to the statistical risk attendant to the vaccines and greater perspective is needed.
As a scientist we also shouldn’t “ignore these reports.” But they must be properly balanced with an investigation into the causality of the medical conditions of the two girls, then balanced against the vast wealth of scientific research that shows how safe, irrefutably safe, the vaccine is. All medical procedures have a risk. All do. If you cut your finger, and go to an ER, 99% of the time , you’ll be stitched up and sent home. Some small amount of the time, there could be infection. Or nerve damage. Or something else that needs to be corrected. Yes, the HPV vaccine might cause a significant issue very rarely, but in huge safety studies of medical records of vaccinated adolescents and teens, we’ve found nothing but minor issues, like pain at the injection site (common for any injection).
If Couric were to do a proper episode about the safety and effectiveness of Gardasil, she would have spent 2 seconds with each mother, then hours talking to researchers and medical professionals. She would have spent hours speaking to families whose mothers died of cervical cancer, which is now a vaccine-preventable disease. She would have found millions of teenagers who got the vaccine with absolutely no problems whatsoever. But no, Couric needed to show the drama, and drama is what she gave us. Why? Because she needed ratings to get higher advertising fees to pay the bills.
But the largest problem with this apology is thus: it’s too late. The audience who saw the TV show are probably easily influenced by dramatic, crying mothers, and could care less about scientific research that can be nuanced, complex, and frankly, dull as a 8-0 baseball game (or a 8-0 soccer match for those in Europe, or a 8-0 cricket test match). And the false balanced story is already out into the body politic about HPV vaccines; Couric’s apology is a long essay in the Huffington Post, an online news organization that has a very significant anti-science focus, and it will not have the impact of a TV episodes.
Furthermore, Couric’s apology is a lot like the Judge who admonishes the jury to ignore the testimony of someone who says “Joe Gardasil is a murderer, I know it. But I don’t have any proof.” It’s too late.
I wrote this before, but it bears repeating. HPV vaccine is safe and effective. And here’s your handy pocket/smartphone/tablet guide:
- The HPV vaccine has been shown to reduce the rate of HPV infections in adolescents and young adults. (Citation)
- The HPV vaccine has been shown again to reduce the rate of HPV infections in adolescents and young adults. (Citation)
- The HPV vaccine has been shown to reduce the rate of HPV infections in gay men. (Citation)
- The HPV vaccine has been shown once again to be effective in reducing the rate of HPV infections in adolescents and young adults. (Citation)
- One of the key HPV vaccine researchers did not change her mind about the safety and effectiveness of the vaccine.
- The HPV vaccine was shown to have produced no significant adverse events in a large study of nearly 200,000 young women given 350,000 doses of Gardasil. (Citation)
- The HPV vaccine was shown to have produced no significant adverse events in an even larger study of 300,000 young women given nearly 700,000 doses of the HPV vaccine. (Citation)
- The HPV vaccine does not turn your children into crazy sex maniacs. (Citation)
- The HPV vaccine adverse event rate cannot be accurately determined from data from Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS). (It’s dumpster diving.) (Citation describing how to critically examine VAERS and other post hoc data)
- The vaccine specifically targets HPV subtypes 16 and 18, that cause not only approximately 70% of cervical cancers, but they also cause most HPV-induced anal (95% linked to HPV), vulvar (50% linked), vaginal (65% linked), oropharyngeal (60% linked) and penile (35% linked) cancers. It also targets HPV subtypes 6 and 11, which account for approximately 90% of external genital warts. The viruses are generally passed through genital contact, almost always as a result of vaginal, oral and anal sex.
That’s science for you. It’s detailed, complex, and, by definition, not very emotional or dramatic. Science is just evidence, and the evidence far far outweighs anecdotes and dramatic TV.
Thanks Ms. Couric for apologizing for your bad reporting. But, it’s too late, and the proper way to have gone was to have done an “apology show” with real scientists and real physicians. But you’d have to give them about a year of time on the show to properly balance out the time you gave to two mothers who provided no evidence. It’s really too late.
If you need to search for scientific information and evidence about vaccines try the Science-based Vaccine Search Engine.
- Ali H, Donovan B, Wand H, Read TR, Regan DG, Grulich AE, Fairley CK, Guy RJ. Genital warts in young Australians five years into national human papillomavirus vaccination programme: national surveillance data. BMJ. 2013 Apr 18;346:f2032. doi: 10.1136/bmj.f2032. PubMed PMID: 23599298.
- Arnheim-Dahlström L, Pasternak B, Svanström H, Sparén P, Hviid A. Autoimmune, neurological, and venous thromboembolic adverse events after immunisation of adolescent girls with quadrivalent human papillomavirus vaccine in Denmark and Sweden: cohort study. BMJ 2013 Oct;347:f5906 doi: 10.1136/bmj.f5906. Impact factor=17.215.
- Bednarczyk RA, Davis R, Ault K, Orenstein W, Omer SB. Sexual activity-related outcomes after human papillomavirus vaccination of 11- to 12-year-olds. Pediatrics. 2012 Nov;130(5):798-805. doi: 10.1542/peds.2012-1516. Epub 2012 Oct 15. PubMed PMID: 23071201.
- Camenga DR, Dunne EF, Desai MM, Gee J, Markowitz LE, Desiliva A, Klein NP. Incidence of genital warts in adolescents and young adults in an integrated health care delivery system in the United States before human papillomavirus vaccine recommendations. Sex Transm Dis. 2013 Jul;40(7):534-8. doi: 10.1097/OLQ.0b013e3182953ce0. PubMed PMID: 23965766. Impact factor=2.594.
- Glick SN, Feng Q, Popov V, Koutsky LA, Golden MR. High Rates of Incident and Prevalent Anal Human Papillomavirus Infection Among Young Men Who Have Sex With Men. J Infect Dis. 2013 Sep 1. [Epub ahead of print] PubMed PMID: 23956439. Impact factor: 5.848.
- Klein NP, Hansen J, Chao C, Velicer C, Emery M, Slezak J, Lewis N, Deosaransingh K, Sy L, Ackerson B, Cheetham TC, Liaw KL, Takhar H, Jacobsen SJ. Safety of quadrivalent human papillomavirus vaccine administered routinely to females. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2012 Dec;166(12):1140-8. doi: 10.1001/archpediatrics.2012.1451. PubMed PMID: 23027469. Impact factor=4.140.
- McCarthy NL, Weintraub E, Vellozzi C, Duffy J, Gee J, Donahue JG, Jackson ML, Lee GM, Glanz J, Baxter R, Lugg MM, Naleway A, Omer SB, Nakasato C, Vazquez-Benitez G, DeStefano F. Mortality Rates and Cause-of-Death Patterns in a Vaccinated Population. Am J Prev Med 2013;45(1):91–97. doi: 10.1016/j.amepre.2013.02.020
- Mesher D, Soldan K, Howell-Jones R, Panwar K, Manyenga P, Jit M, Beddows S, Gill ON. Reduction in HPV 16/18 prevalence in sexually active young women following the introduction of HPV immunisation in England. Vaccine. 2013 Nov 5. doi:pii: S0264-410X(13)01492-8. 10.1016/j.vaccine.2013.10.085. [Epub ahead of print] PubMed PMID: 24211166. Impact factor=3.492