Girl dies shortly after vaccine shot

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Sept. 29 2009 11:59 AM

Girl dies shortly after vaccine shot

[UPDATE (October 2): As predicted, it appears that the vaccine did not cause this young woman's untimely and tragic death; it was a malignant tumor in her chest that caused the fatality. As I pointed out, if you give enough vaccinations, there are likely to be coincidental deaths shortly thereafter. My condolences to her family on this awful circumstance.]

That headline above is factually accurate. Of course, most people reading it will assume that the vaccination caused the death. But we have no evidence of that yet, so try not to jump to conclusions.

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Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death from the Skies! Follow him on Twitter.

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The Daily Mail is reporting that a young woman, aged 14, died shortly after receiving a vaccine shot (they call them "jabs" in the UK) for HPV, to prevent cervical cancer. They are reporting that about an hour after the shot she became pale, stopped breathing, and fainted. Rescuers were not able to save her.

This story, first and foremost, is horrible and tragic. My heart goes out to the parents of the young woman and to all her friends and schoolmates. This is an awful thing, what every parent dreads.

I want to be careful and not rush to judgment, though. First and foremost, we don't know that the vaccination is why she died. The Daily Mail is not exactly the most trusted news source, to start off with. I am taking events reported therein with a large grain of salt.

Second, we don't know why she died at all. Reports of that have not yet been aired.

Third, complications of any kind from vaccinations are incredibly rare. Gardasil, an HPV vaccination (though different than the one the girl in England received), has been given to over 7 million girls, yet there have been only 20 deaths after getting the shot... and for almost all of them there is no obvious relation between the shot and the fatality except for timing. In other words, they were tragic coincidences.

As one person pointed out on Twitter, you could write an article that says "Man dies after reading the Daily Mail", since I'm sure that will happen many times every day.

As skeptics tirelessly point out: correlation does not mean causation. Because an event happens after a previous event, it doesn't mean the first caused the second. Is it possible the vaccination resulted in that girl's death? Yes, it's possible. However, was it responsible? That we don't know, and have to wait.

And if it was responsible, we need to find out why. Did she have a rare condition? Was it a bad batch? Was she terribly scared of shots, and her heightened fear exacerbated a heart condition? The point is, we don't know.

What I do know is that the antivax crowd will go ballistic over this, despite not having enough facts to make a rational conclusion here. But facts are tenuous or malleable things to them, only useful for ignoring or distortion.

In the comments below I expect we'll hear a lot of the usual misinformation about toxins and autism and mercury and fetal tissue, long-debunked worries over vaccines. Let's please remember two things here: one is that we don't know what happened, and the other is that a young girl has died, and we should all be respectful of that.