The anti-vaccination movement has long been a public menace. It's responsible for the resurgence of numerous serious diseases that were on the decline, including measles, mumps and whooping cough.
Now the movement has been given a big booster shot by Katie Couric, who devoted a large portion of her daily talk show Wednesday to some highly emotional and scientifically dubious claims by critics of Gardasil, a leading vaccine for human papillomavirus, or HPV.
The segment focused on a mother convinced that her 20-year-old daughter died after a cycle of Gardasil immunization, and a second family whose 14-year-old daughter fell ill after the shots. Neither presented any medical evidence to support their claims.
Alarm about the show's HPV segment was raised in advance by science writer Seth Mnookin, who reported that he had been contacted in July by a producer for the show who suggested that the segment would be aimed at debunking the misconception that childhood vaccines are linked to autism. This is a dangerous claim retailed by, among others, the starlet Jenny McCarthy, who currently has a perch on the talk show "The View."
Mnookin wrote that the Couric show's interest in him waned over the months but that he thought the producer had a good grasp of the scientific issues. That confidence vanished when the first promos for the segment appeared this week.
We reached out to Couric's producers; a person close to the program defended the segment by observing that the show "regularly discusses important topics in the hope that people can make their own decisions."
To be fair, Couric announced at the outset of the segment that she'd had her own two daughters immunized against HPV. The segment also featured a pediatric expert advising that the vaccine is the best tool we have for the early prevention of HPV infection, and therefore for safeguarding against its possible consequences, which include cervical cancer in women and other cancers in men.
But those portions of the show had the flavor of "balance," presented to stave off accusations of pandering to ignorance. The real punch of the show was its portrayal of HPV vaccination as "controversial." Couric led the segment off by declaring that "some people say the risk [of the vaccine] may outweigh the benefits, and there are claims that it could be dangerous or in a handful of cases, even deadly. ... We want to keep our kids safe, but is the vaccine the way to go?" Merely to ask the questions is to validate them.
Who are these "some people" talking up the risk of the vaccine? They're not at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the Food and Drug Administration, which declare Gardasil safe and effective.
The CDC reported this year that since June 2006, 57 million doses of HPV vaccines were distributed. The agency's vaccine reporting service received 22,000 "adverse event" reports of side effects, but 92% were classified as non-serious, including dizziness, nausea, rashes and headaches. Those are also the most commonly reported "serious" side effects, too (when they're more severe). Medical experts recommend administering the vaccine to both boys and girls as early as age 11. The idea is to build immunity before they become sexually active, the chief means of infection.
The show's prerecorded vignettes of the purported victims and their families were accompanied by sinister music and mournful tears, against which sober scientific judgment has few weapons indeed. By raising questions about HPV vaccination, even rhetorically, Couric is implicitly endorsing the idea that there's sound reason for doubt.
Daytime talk shows like Couric's thrive on conflict and controversy, but injecting doubt and emotionalism into important medical discussions and removing science from the arena is playing with fire. Couric's audience is almost exclusively women, one presumes, including mothers facing the decision of whether to have their children immunized against HPV.
Katie Couric established her credibility as a spokeswoman for preventive medicine more than a decade ago, by undergoing a colonoscopy live on the "Today" show. Now she'll be known for promoting junk medicine instead.
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