"The HPV vaccine is considered a life-saving cancer preventer, but is it a potentially deadly dose for girls?" This was the promo for Wednesday's episode of Katie, Katie Couric's daytime talk show on ABC. Couric, whose husband passed away from colon cancer, is known for being a relatively responsible journalist when it comes to health care issues, so despite this needlessly alarmist advertising, I held out hope that her show would demonstrate that no matter how adamant a very small group of people are that their health problems are caused by the HPV vaccine, there is no evidence that the HPV vaccine is dangerous. Sadly, my hopes were dashed as Couric spent a half-hour of her show drumming up fears that the vaccine will make you very ill or even kill you.
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. 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. Unfortunately, Couric and her producers allowed these facts to be totally overshadowed by the heartrending tales told by the two mothers.
These women—who work with the group SaneVax, which promotes all sorts of anti-scientific nonsense and embraces known fraud Dr. Andrew Wakefield—are telling stories that no doubt sound quite convincing to most viewers. Couric, the journalist, notes none of these red flags: a dizzying array of symptoms attributed to the vaccine that haven't shown up in any controlled studies, an unwillingness to consider that there might be other causes of the symptoms, and an extremely generous view of how much time a vaccine can sit in our systems mysteriously doing damage through unknown avenues. (Controlled studies that carefully track symptoms have found that in some very rare cases, there is an allergic reaction to the shot, but that reaction manifests "a few minutes to a few hours" after the vaccination.) One of the mothers even openly admits she went doctor-hunting until she finally got one willing to tell her what she wanted to hear and who she notably doesn't name. Couric, the former anchor of the CBS Evening News, doesn't challenge her.
Then there's Harper, who presents herself as a reasonable person, insofar as she openly admits side effects are rare and that the HPV vaccine does work. However, she then claims that the vaccine stops offering protection after five years, even though the CDC says that the effects are long-lasting. She also tries to minimize the vaccine's efficacy by claiming that kids can get some kinds of HPV before they start having sex, while eliding that they are very unlikely to get the kinds that cause cervical cancer and ignoring that the rates of HPV transmission from sex are way higher. Harper also casually endorses the conclusion that these girls suffered from vaccine-related illness. But what's really troubling is that she aggressively promotes regular Pap smears as the better and safer alternative to vaccines, claiming that with the new Pap test, we can prevent "100 percent" of cervical cancer. Never mind that despite this better test, the gaps in Pap testing mean that 4,000 women die a year of cervical cancer. And never mind that the Cleveland Clinic says there is a 10 to 20 percent false negative rate for the test. Indeed, she speaks so glowingly of Pap tests that the viewer walks away with the impression that the tests do something to prevent precancerous cells from forming. She doesn't actually mention what happens if the Pap finds the cells (they have to be scraped off, often in a procedure that requires putting a patient under, which has its own risks), which is absolutely more likely to happen if you don't get vaccinated.
Yes, it's true, as Harper says, that the vaccination doesn't cover all the dozens of HPV types you can get, some of which are associated with cancer. That's why the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends getting both the HPV vaccine and regular screenings.* The former prevents a huge chunk of cases where women develop precancerous cells, and the latter catches the rest. And despite Harper's assurance that regular Pap smears are no big deal, the truth is that some women can't or won't go to the doctor as often as they should, especially in their 20s. Which is why the vaccine is so important: It's easy, extra protection that will save some of their lives.
Correction, Dec. 4, 2013: This post originally misidentified the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists as the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.