Wednesday, December 4, 2013

In the Media, A Bad Day for Vaccines

By Karen Ernst

I write this at the end of a bad day in the media for vaccines. It’s not that there was bad news about vaccines; it’s that the good news was ignored in lieu of anti-vaccine misinformation. The most disappointing of these media stories occurred on Katie Couric’s daytime talk show, Katie.

For weeks, the Canary Party (a group of anti-vaxxers who have actually formed a political party based on being anti-vaccine) have been shopping around an anti-HPV vaccine video on the heels of the cancellation of Congressional Oversight Committee hearing they had so hoped for. Katie Couric and her producers, in a cynical attempt to buoy her dismal ratings, bit.

To say I am disappointed in Couric would be an understatement. Since losing her husband to colon cancer 15 years ago, Couric has championed cancer prevention through colonoscopies. That she would allow a ratings ploy to trump journalistic integrity on the subject of a vaccine that prevents tens of thousands of HPV-related cancers each year in the U. S. boggles the mind.

The segment began with Canary Party Executive Committee member Emily Tarsell describing the death of her daughter, Christina, eighteen days after she received the Gardasil vaccine. Truly, nothing is as traumatic and devastating as losing a child in the prime of her life. The need for answers is more than understandable, it is necessary; and I can even understand parents seeking answers in and holding fast to a theory that makes sense to them, even if the theory doesn’t hold up scientifically. I want to be absolutely clear that I do not blame those parents for this. Instead, I blame the anti-vaccine movement for exploiting their stories in order to support their own wrong-headed ideas about immunization.

But because she brought her daughter’s story to a large, public forum, it is fair to investigate it to see if Emily Tarsell’s account holds up to scrutiny. Many facts surrounding Christina’s death are unavailable because Emily Tarsell is seeking compensation from the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program. However, this court order from the NVICP judge indicates that the story does not support the theory that Christina died from an HPV-vaccine reaction. In it, the judge notes that despite Emily’s recall of her daughter’s unusual fatigue, “there is no evidence suggesting that Christina was so tired (or fatigued) that her health affected her daily activities.  For example, none of [those] who observed Christina while she was in Maryland . . . asserts that she changed plans due to tiredness.”

In fact, the findings note that Christina seemed anything but fatigued: “While in New York, Christina worked her part-time job for 18.75 hours.  On Thursday, June 17, 2008, Christina stayed up until midnight or 1:00 A.M. having dinner with her apartment mates.  Her apartment mates did not tell the police officers investigating Christina’s death that she appeared unusually tired.  Her apartment mate’s recollections suggest that, to their knowledge, Christina was normal.” In this document, there is also evidence that Christina may have suffered from a preexisting heart condition, but there was never a definitive cause of death.

Next up on Katie, Couric handed the floor over to Dr. Diane Harper, who made a number of spurious claims about HPV vaccines. The first claim was that HPV vaccines only offer protection for five years. Initial studies, however, do not support Dr. Harper’s claim, some showing that an HPV vaccine can offer protection for at least 8.5 years. And we may find that the vaccine offers protection for much longer as more evidence rolls in.  

Dr. Harper also asserted that pap smears are sufficient in detecting pre-cancerous cells which, she claimed, are 100% curable. However, between 2004 and 2008, 26,000 HPV-related cancers were diagnosed each year in the United States. 11,500 of these cancers were cerivcal cancers. In 2010, nearly 12,000 women died from cervical cancer. Despite Dr. Harper’s optimistic view of cervical cancer screening, it is far from perfect, and it would be vastly better to prevent infection than to try to cure the results of it.

Dr. Harper’s subsequent instructions that parents weigh the benefits and the risks of the vaccine is only sage advice if parents are receiving accurate information about the benefits and risks. The benefits, of course, are preventing cancer and death. The risks, as Couric presented them, were completely out-of-whack. A study of nearly one million girls who had received HPV vaccines found no significant health risks involved.

And it only got worse.  After talking to Dr. Harper, Couric provided air time to yet another anti-vaccine leader--this time SaneVax director Rosemary Mathis. SaneVax has a history of promoting misinformation and particularly horrible science. Inviting Mathis as a guest on a show about vaccination is the equivalent of inviting my kindergarten-age son as an expert on Tokyo because of his interest in Godzilla.

But it couldn’t all be a big commercial for anti-vaccine propaganda could it?  There must be hope because this is Katie Couric, right? As somewhat of a reprieve, Dr. Mallika Marshall provided some wonderful and accurate information about HPV and its vaccine. And she was brilliant. She was followed by a mother-daughter pair who endorsed the HPV vaccine.

The segment ended with Dr. Harper encouraging parents to get their daughters gift certificates for pap smears for their 21st birthday and Dr. Marshall encouraging parents to vaccinate.

Couric may have considered this balanced coverage since she presented two sides about this vaccine. But you probably know that I’m not going to let her off the hook that easily.

In 1998, Andrew Wakefield hoodwinked journalists into reporting on a shiny new theory about vaccines causing autism. As you might remember, it was all a grand fraud from which Wakefield continues to profit. And the media helped him, even after studies were rolling in discrediting the theory that vaccines cause autism, the media continued to structure their news stories to create balance. On one side, a family that claimed their children became autistic because of vaccines. On the other side, people in lab coats saying this just could not be the case. The anecdote too often trumped the evidence, as often happens in cases of false balance. CJR’s Curtis Brainard discussed how these “subtly bad” media reports perpetuate myths about vaccines. These myths threaten us all.

Katie Couric’s television show threatened the lives of young girls and boys. Because their parents are being frightened away from a safe and important vaccine, there will be men and women in the future who will die from HPV-related cancers, and who could pass HPV on to unwitting partners. Today, Katie Couric gave the anti-vaccine movement a huge forum, and I am already mourning the lives that will be affected because of it.

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