Is the HPV Vaccine Safe? What About the Media Reports?

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. 

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  • invalid-0

    I enjoyed your post…one can look at the # of cases of Guillain-Barre syndrome reported for Gardasil versus GB reported for all others here.

    There are 33 Guillain-Barre/Gardasil cases listed in VAERS as of June 30, 2008 (out of approximately 9700 Gardasil VAERS reports total). This is approximately 0.3%

    Contrast with Guillain-Barre cases listed in VAERS for all OTHER vaccines (1384) out of approximately 265000 VAERS reports, which is approximately 0.5%.

    This type of comparison (while not perfect) is commonly used by pharmacovigilance researchers when trying to detect potential drug/vaccine safety signals and is called the “proportional reporting ratio”.

  • invalid-0

    OF COURSE it is safe! Merck says it is safe, just like they said Vioxx was safe, and how they continue to say that Vytorin is safe, even though it raises your risk of dying from cancer.

    Don’t question Merck, we all know they have our best interest at heart, and not profit…

    • amanda-marcotte

      How much money did they make?

  • invalid-0

    Comparing viagra to gardasil illustrates a desperate defense of this controversial vaccine since it is tantamount to comparing an apple with, say, a steak.

    Viagra is a drug marketed to grown men for the sake of an elective result. Gardasil is being literally pushed on CHILDREN and billed as a cancer prevention. The FDA’s latest news release on the thousands of adverse effects and TWENTY deaths associated with Gardasil actually says this kind of thing could happen by “chance alone.” Do you want to take taht “chance” with your daugther? I sure as hell don’t.

    • amanda-marcotte

      They happened after the shot.  They may be related, and may not.  This tracking system is to make sure that if there is a real problem, the government knows about it.  Right now, the complaint level is actually half the level that it is for other vaccines. 


      16 million shots have been given.  The odds that 20 of 16 milliion people are going to die in the next year are pretty high.

  • invalid-0

    20 deaths reported does not mean that Gardasil caused those 20 deaths. Anyone can call the hotline and report an adverse effect. It will be interesting to see what the report says in October…I will get my daughter vaccinated because I rather be someone that saved her from the pain of cancer..there are over 20,000 strains of HPV out there, the chance she will get exposed to that is much greater than the chance she will die or have an adverse side effect.

  • invalid-0

    “Finally, the 6-7% of reported serious adverse events to Gardasil actually amounts to half the average for vaccines in general. ”

    Where did you find this information?

  • invalid-0

    on the CDC web site:

    Amie Newman

    Managing Editor, RH Reality Check

  • invalid-0

    I am only writing to ask you to view the adverse site as my daughter had this vaccine actually only 2 doses and has never been the same since. She went in for routine physical and was sold the vaccine by primary care physician and after the first dose she was fine then the second dose she bacame so ill I had her hospitalized after 6 doctor visits and 6 er visits then she ended up needing surgery and is finally back at work but now seems to be suffering from an autoimmune disorder!! She was vibrant healthy girl working her dream job as a physical therapist and wham after the shot she lost 38 pounds and couldn’t eat and was vomiting and ill so so sick. The internal medicine doctor that treated her in the hospital said we know very little about this vaccine and he would not recommend it to anyone not his daughter or grand daughter he said this is not the flu shot it was not tested enough. I can only tell you my daughter wishes to god she never had the vaccine. I hope this coming from someone whom has first hand knowledge of the consequences of this shot will stop even just one person I feel I have done my job!! Do Not allow your healthy daughers to this experimental drug it is very damaging.
    Thanks for listening.

  • invalid-0

    There is no cure for HPV. But there are treatments for the health problems that HPV can cause, such as genital warts, cervical cell changes, and cancers caused by HPV.