Mainstream scaremongering over Gardasil

Bad Astronomy
The entire universe in blog form
Aug. 20 2009 7:30 AM

Mainstream scaremongering over Gardasil


Gardasil is the brand name of a vaccination that protects young girls and women against the human papillomavirus (HPV), a virus that has been positively linked with cervical cancer along with other horrible diseases. It also can trigger cancers in men as well.

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

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I've written about this topic before; 4000 women in the United States die every year alone from cervical cancer, an appalling 1/3 fatality rate for those diagnosed with the disease. Tens of millions of people -- both men and women -- carry HPV.

Gardasil protects young women from ever getting HPV. These women have a substantially lower chance of contracting the virus and getting cervical cancer. I consider that a very, very good thing.

But you wouldn't think so if you read the New York Times, or the (Australian) ABC News. Both posted articles playing up the dangers of Gardasil as revealed by a new government study of the vaccine. That would be fine if it were true, but both reports, in my opinion, unfairly inflate the apparent danger. The ABC article is particularly egregious, with a headline saying "US doctors question Gardasil side effects" when it's clear from the article that this isn't really the case.

What are the dangers? The worst one would of course be death. In a study of the vaccine, there were 20 deaths of young girls at some time after they got the shot. Twenty! That sounds like a lot! However, there are two MAJOR problems with that statement:

1) There is no obvious link between the deaths and the vaccination other than in time. One girl died from drug abuse. Another from hepatitis, and others from embolisms, cardiac failure, and other problems. While these are all very sad -- and as a father of a young girl at the age to get Gardasil, my heart aches for those families -- none of these can be directly tied to the vaccination.

2) There were 20 deaths out of 7 million girls who received the vaccine. Those odds are 1 in 350,000. That's roughly the same odds as dying from falling off a bed, chair, or other furniture.

I can just imagine the antivaxxers yelling "It's a BIG FURNITURE CONSPIRACY!" over that one.

In truth, I imagine the antivaxxers are already licking their chops over this news, ready to fold, spindle, and mutilate reality as they oh-so-often do. The last thing we need are misleading articles like these two. It's like red meat for them.

The New York Times article quotes a doctor who urges caution over giving girls the shots. She says that proper cancer screening will prevent women from getting cervical cancer. That's true, but misses the point entirely. Not everyone can or does get screened for cancer. If they did, we wouldn't be losing 4000 women every year to it. I'd rather close the barn door before the horse escapes.

I'm not a doctor, so I can't tell you to go get your daughters vaccinated with Gardasil. What I will tell you is that your best weapon here is to simply understand the situation, and don't just believe what you read. Don't even believe me. Read up on this yourself and talk to your doctor.

Oh, and to the antivaxxers who will no doubt descend on the comments here and try to muddy the situation with distortions and spin, I'll answer your question before it's even asked: Yes, The Little Astronomer did get her course of Gardasil vaccinations. And now she gets an even better shot at living a long, long time to talk about it.

Tip o' the needle to April Gardner and Topher423 for the article leads.

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