Is the HPV vaccine Gardasil a life saver or a killer? That was the question asked this week on Katie Couric’s new talk show. In a surprise move for the well-respected journalist, it was unfortunately a debate that was dangerously stacked to play up drama, fears and emotional manipulation at the expense of scientific facts.
Gardasil, the vaccine that can prevent many strains of human papillomavirus (HPV) diseases most responsible for causing genital warts and often cervical cancer, has been given to millions of pre-teen and teen girls as a means of protecting them from the dangerous sexually transmitted infection (STI). From the moment it was introduced, however, it was the focus of massive attacks, primarily from those who opposed anything that they felt could lead to teens potentially having sex, who saw the vaccine as a red light and a “license to have sex.”
Social conservatives continued to rally against Gardasil, in many cases making up completely fabricated “side effects,” such as Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann’s infamous claim during the 2012 GOP primary that it caused “mental retardation” in a young woman who had the vaccine. Other Republicans — such as Bachmann’s rival, Texas Governor Rick Perry — embraced the vaccine as a way of protecting women from one of the most deadly forms of cancer, with Perry going as far as to mandate it for all Texas preteen girls (a move that some think was less altruistic and more due to close ties with the manufacturer of the vaccine).
Still, for years opponents of the vaccine have kept up their false claims. Some say that 100 have been killed and 20,000 harmed by the drug, which one Forbes writer explains is a common perception of any vaccine on the market, with thousands of reports of incidents that occur post vaccination but can’t actually be linked to being caused by the vaccine itself. “You can’t directly link any of those adverse events or deaths directly to the vaccines, any more than you could blame it on my morning coffee if I got hit by a truck later today,” wrote Matthew Herper, who drilled down the number to just a few dozen deaths that were possibly related and even then most of them still unlikely.
As Herper noted, though, any vaccine is going to have an adverse effect in a small amount of the population. It was that small pocket that Couric highlighted on her show, giving them almost free reign through the program to connect their stories to the process of being vaccinated, to make blanket statements implying that their experience wasn’t a small exception and to provide little balance from anyone who explained that the vast majority of those who are vaccinated are unaffected or that the overall benefits massively outweigh the small risks.
“On the anti-vaccine side: Couric’s guests included a mother whose daughter died of undetermined causes 18 days after getting the vaccination; another mother and her daughter, who came down with a hodgepodge of symptoms that sound an awful lot like depression a few days after the vaccine; and Dr. Diane Harper, a skeptic of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s push to vaccinate all girls and who is careful to avoid obvious untruths but has been criticized for her involvement in the anti-vaccination movement,” writes Amanda Marcotte at Slate. “On the pro-vaccination side, Couric only hosted one guest, Dr. Mallika Marshall, a ratio that wildly underplays how dominant the pro-vaccination opinion is in the medical profession. Marshall was only given a few minutes to state that vaccines are safe and that the side effects mentioned by other guests were probably unrelated to the vaccine.”
“It is so sad that a journalist has such disregard for facts,” said Dr. Jen Gunter, an OB/GYN and author, via email. “A mother believing her child was harmed isn’t fact. Why didn’t Couric insist on treating physicians and medical records? It was disgraceful. There is no controversy about the safety of the HPV vaccine. There were great things for her to cover, like the different HPV types in African American women. This I could see as a controversy. Why are we just finding out about it now? But otherwise, shame on you, Katie Couric.”
By promoting this one-sided, skewed version of the Gardasil story on her program, and letting the story go mostly unchallenged, Couric gives an implied endorsement to her guests’ biased and unfounded claims. From a journalist with such an extensive history of real reporting, her audience expects and deserves better.
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