I can’t decide if this is an example of careless reporting, or of intentional fear-mongering. While there is no solid evidence that Gardasil is dangerous, CNN’s article “Should parents worry about HPV vaccine?” seems to be written with the aim of confusing the public into believing otherwise:
Gardasil has been the subject of 7,802 “adverse event” reports from the time the Food and Drug Administration approved its use two years ago, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Girls and women have blamed the vaccine for causing ailments from nausea to paralysis — even death. Fifteen deaths were reported to the FDA, and 10 were confirmed, but the CDC says none of the 10 were linked to the vaccine. The CDC says it continues to study the reports of illness.
While the idea that the HPV vaccinations might be unsafe is scary, at this point in CNN’s article I’m most appalled by a major news organization’s apparent lack of interest in conveying any real information to readers about an issue that concerns the safety of women and girls, and that could impact people’s decisions on whether or not to get vaccinated.
Let’s start with the first statement – that 7,802 “adverse event” reports have been filed. The obvious follow-up question that should occur to any reporter is “well, how many of these adverse events have actually been linked to Gardasil?” One might also wonder what the average adverse event report rate is for any vaccine, and if those reports decline after the vaccination is proven to be safe. Readers naturally want to know, after such a sensational headline, well – should we be worried, or are people drawing connections between illnesses and the vaccine where none actually exist?
The article’s second sensational statement, that “[f]ifteen deaths were reported to the FDA,” immediately looses its steam when we realize that none of those deaths have been linked to Gardasil. At this point in my reading, I began to doubt CNN’s motives – they wouldn’t strum-up fear just because it’s good for ratings, would they?
Finally, CNN presents us with the terrifying story of a teenager who developed pancreatitis not long after taking the vaccine. While I am not insensible to how horrifying such a serious illness would be for a young girl and her family, it should be CNN’s responsibility to verify whether or not her fear that it was related to the vaccine could be founded – by researching how many of those incident reports dealt with pancreatitis, for example, or other autoimmune diseases. This type of reporting is important, after all, since it could impact women’s decisions and, consequently, their health.
Here is the sort of information that I would have expected CNN to include if they meant their article be read as a journalistic report that reflects a sense responsibility to the pubic, rather than a sensationalist rumor:
The Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) collect data on any health problem that occurs after any vaccine is administered, as part of the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS). As the CDC explains, “Anyone can report a health problem in VAERS. Just because a health problem is reported to VAERS does not mean it was caused by a vaccine.” To be clear, what CNN reports as a possible cause for worry – that data about ‘adverse events’ following vaccination with Gardasil is being kept and monitored – is actually just part of routine procedure.
I asked above what the average ‘adverse event’ report rate is for any vaccine. For reports of adverse health events occurring after vaccination with Gardasil, less than 7% were ‘serious adverse events’ (“events involving hospitalization, death, permanent disability, and life-threatening illness“). As it turns out, this equates to “about half of the average for vaccines overall.”
To be fair, CNN does point out that “more than 26 million Gardasil vaccines” have been distributed since 2006, which provides a bit of context for the adverse event report number. Yet, the reporter fails to follow a claim that the vaccine should have been better tested with any description of how it actually was tested. This information isn’t hard to find – the same CDC page that lists the adverse event reports for Gardasil explains that studies included “…11,000 females 9 to 26 years of age… These studies found the HPV vaccine is safe and causes no serious side effects. The most common side effect is injection site pain.”
The CDC is looking into whether or not Gardasil could be related to 10 confirmed cases of Guillain-Barré syndrome, a rare autoimmune disease. Before CNN decides to run an exposé, however, I hope they’ll take the time to contact some of the researchers who work on Guillain-Barré and those studying a potential link. I also hope that they’ll write the piece with the aim to inform the public, not scare it.
Quite frankly, I’m not a doctor and I can’t recommend that anyone be vaccinated or not. If someone wants to read a blog that is run by doctors and medical researchers that frequently discusses vaccinations, I suggest Denialism Blog. Yet, before anyone decides not to vaccinate against HPV, they might want to consider that – as Jill points out – “HPV is a major risk factor for cervical cancer… genital warts, penile cancer and anal cancer.” In deciding whether or not to vaccinate girls and boys, the potential risks have to be weighed against the potential benefits. Considering that the American Cancer Association estimates that about “3,870 women will die from cervical cancer in the United States during 2008,” it is important to go into that decision with a cool head and an honest understanding of the risks.
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