Katie Couric backs off from her anti-vaccine show--but not enough

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Having taken a fair amount of heat from the science-based community for her recent show promoting scare stories about an important immunological vaccine, Katie Couric has backed off.

In a piece appearing Tuesday in the Huffington Post, the TV host conceded that some of the criticism that the segment was “too anti-vaccine and anti-science” was “ retrospect.” She acknowledged that “more emphasis should have been given to the safety and efficacy of the HPV vaccines.” The initials stand for the human papillomavirus, a sexually-transmitted virus linked to cancers in both men and women.

Couric deserves credit for fessing up. You can’t get much more forthright than to pronounce a critique valid. Her piece goes further, identifying HPV as “a growing problem” and attesting to the proven safety of the vaccine: “There’s no question that vaccination is highly effective,” she writes. “In large clinical trials, Gardasil has been shown to significantly reduce the chance that women will develop the cervical, vaginal, and vulvar abnormalities that precede cancer. Similarly, it has been shown to reduce the rates of the tissue abnormalities that precede anal cancer in men. More recent data showed that in the period between 2007, shortly after the vaccines were introduced, and 2010, the rate of infection with the HPV types that the vaccine protects against fell by 56 percent, as compared to the four-year period before the vaccines were available in the U.S.”


You should read the whole piece. But you should know that Couric didn’t go far enough.

The issues with her Dec. 4 segment on the HPV vaccine were much more serious than she acknowledges--indeed, more serious than we reported when we wrote about the segment on the day it aired. Those issues reflect problems with the entire anti-vaccine movement, which got a huge boost in standing by being featured on a daytime television program hosted by someone with Katie Couric’s credibility and appeal.

Couric observes that there are some side effects to the vaccine, as there are with all vaccines, and the vast majority are not serious. But she goes on to assert: “Some people say their children have suffered from a variety of medical problems after the vaccination, and there have even been a few reports of death. As a journalist, I felt that we couldn’t simply ignore these reports.”

That’s a very narrow view of her options. Her choice wasn’t to air the reports or ignore them. If she was determined to air these reports, her responsibility was to check them out. But she didn’t check them out. That’s a major failure, because putting grieving mothers and their children on the air gives them the aura of truth, and in these cases that aura is unwarranted.

As other commentators, including Phil Plait and Amanda Marcotte of have observed, the two families who got most of the airtime on Couric’s show have backgrounds in the anti-vaccine movement. This was not fully disclosed. That’s another major failure, because both appeared to be randomly selected.

One guest was Emily Tarsell, whose daughter Christina died at some point after receiving the Gardasil vaccine. She’s director of Gardasil network development for the National Vaccine Information Center, an anti-vaccine organization with a controversial record.

Another guest was Rosemary Mathis, whose daughter (also a guest) experienced what she says were severe reactions to the vaccine. Mathis is director of SaneVax, an organization that pushes some extreme anti-vaccine claims. It’s a promoter of the notorious and discredited Andrew Wakefield, whose 1998 study claiming a connection between the MMR vaccine and autism has been exposed as a fraud--but is responsible for a long-term reduction in the vaccine’s use in his native Britain and a concomitant rise in measles cases still being seen.


Tarsell and Mathis are anti-vaccine crusaders, and they should never have been presented on Couric’s show as ordinary victims of Gardasil--especially because no evidence whatsoever supports their medical claims.

Couric acknowledges in her article that “there is no definitive proof that these two situations were related to the vaccine....[T]he time spent telling these stories was disproportionate to the statistical risk attendant to the vaccines and greater perspective is needed.”

The question is whether the damage has already been done. The program encouraged viewers to weigh the pros and cons of the HPV vaccine for themselves and their children, but that’s a misstatement of the balance. Such vaccines are important for more than simply the patients themselves--immunization is a community imperative and a matter of public health, not just personal health. Questioning the safety and efficacy of the HPV vaccine despite the weight of the evidence in its favor menaces the health of everyone who might come into sexual contact with an unvaccinated partner, and therefore enhances the virus’ spread.

Finally, there’s the issue of the weight of Couric’s essay versus the weight of her show. As I write, it’s not clear if she’ll repeat her concession on the air. That’s key, because the impact of a television segment is simply enormous, swamping the impact even of as candid a reappraisal as Couric provided in print. The video depictions of mothers and daughters in tears will stay with thousands of Couric’s loyal viewers. Her written mea culpa, not so much.