CNN reports today on Taqueria Williams, a young teen suffering from an auto-immune disease seemingly as a result of her having received the Gardasil vaccine.
In what seems to be more like tabloid style reportage than journalism one might expect on this issue from CNN, the report focuses on half-truths and incomplete information to create drama around what is clearly a political issue for many. The reporter never explains whether Taqueria Williams received the full three-injection regimen or just the first.
The report centers on Williams who, according to her own doctor, suffers from an autoimmune disease the cause of which "cannot be proven." It doesn’t stop the reporter from presenting statistics meant to scare with little fact behind the fear.
According to the CNN report, the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS – a joint reporting system between the CDC and the FDA) reflects there have been 9,749 adverse reactions "following the vaccination", including 31 cases of Guillian-Barre syndrome (a potentially life-threatening condition) and 21 deaths since 2006. However, WebMD writes, 93% of those adverse reactions are "nonserious events" such as pain at the injection site and fainting after receiving the shot (a common reaction in teens, according to the CDC’s acting director of immunization safety, John Iskander).
In addition, VAERS is simply a way for anyone to report what appears like an "adverse reaction" to a vaccine, but the Centers for Disease Control have no way of verifying if a vaccine actually caused that adverse event.
Finally, the 6-7% of reported serious adverse events to Gardasil actually amounts to half the average for vaccines in general.
The report does not explain any of this.
In fact, there is as of yet no causal relationship proven between Gardasil and any of these adverse reactions, including the deaths. The report does interview Iskander and makes a point of including his firm belief that the information collected so far does not allow the CDC to call Gardasil unsafe.
CNN goes on to quote a "conservative watchdog group" called Judicial Watch which assures parents that their young teens are being used as guinea pigs, essentially. But Judicial Watch has had it out for Gardasil since the beginning, petitioning for information on the vaccine through the FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) immediately after it was approved.
Judicial Watch complains in its extensive report on Gardasil that the vaccine was approved by the FDA after only 6 months, but Viagra, although not a vaccine, experienced a similar time frame for its approval process as well.
Merck, the makers of the vaccine, maintain that the vaccine is 100% safe. The Centers for Disease Control are now working on a study to determine whether there is any pattern to the adverse reactions, particularly Guillian-Barre Syndrome, seen after the Gardasil vaccine.
As with any vaccine, there is certainly always room for risk vs. benefit assessment. Merck and the CDC still recommend regular pap smears for women whether they receive the vaccine or not. And some parents will certainly view these reports with wariness and make their own decisions.
But the the sensationalistic reporting on the vaccine stems from the politicized nature. Gardasil was approved relatively quickly compared to other reproductive health medications. The medical abortion method, RU-486, needed to endure a four year approval process with the FDA (seventeen years after research was complete!). And it’s hard to forget the Bush Administration’s blatant politicization of emergency contraception blocking the approval process for over the counter access at every turn.
Without the undertones of anti-choice anger over a vaccine that is related to a sexually transmitted infection for young women, Gardasil may have easily existed under the radar.