In their story on the purported devastating side-effects of the HPV vaccine, Gardasil, the Toronto Star’s David Bruser and Jesse McLean buried the lead. In both the print and video amplifier, the message “in the cases discussed in this story, it is the opinion of a doctor or patient that a particular drug has caused a side effect. There is no proof the vaccine caused a death, illness or hospitalization,” [emphasis mine] was buried either at or towards the end.

I’m usually a fan of the Star’s reporting, a good friend is a former reporter and editor with the paper, so I was shocked to see the specious connections made by the Star’s team about a life-saving vaccine. The Star’s story arrives in the midst of a national dialogue on the safety, efficacy and necessity of vaccines, which makes it all the more crucial to fact check the story’s claims.

If Gardasil carries with it a risk higher than reward I would be the first to say it needs to be pulled, but the data does not bear this out. But multiple studies (Chao, et al., 2012; Arnheim-Dahlström, et al., 2013; and CDC MMWR Weekly July 26, 2013 / 62(29);591-595) involving literally millions of subjects have shown no increased incidence of autoimmune disorders post vaccination with either variation of the HPV vaccine.

A crucial error in the story is Bruser and McLean’s misinterpretation (misrepresentation? misunderstanding?) of the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS). In the simplest of terms VAERS is quantitative input, not qualitative output. Anyone can, and is encouraged to, report an injury to VAERS that they believe to be caused by a vaccine. Reporting a suspected injury to VAERS is not the same as a confirmed causal relationship.

The stories told by the girls and their mothers in the Star piece are heartbreaking, and I do not doubt these girls suffered debilitating illnesses. But what’s crucial to the story is whether or not those illnesses were caused by the Gardasil vaccine.

In one story, there may be a clear connection, however, the connection speaks not to the safety of the vaccine but rather to importance of vaccine safety communication. The article and video highlights the story of Kaitlyn, a teenage girl given the shot even though she told the nurses(s) she was allergic to a key component in the vaccine. If the nurse(s) did ignore Kaitlyn’s warnings and gave her the shot anyways, this does not imply an issue with the safety of the vaccine. It does imply that our health care professionals need to better educated about the components and contraindications for each vaccine.

Chao, C., Klein, N. P., Velicer, C. M., Sy, L. S., Slezak, J. M., Takhar, H., Ackerson, B., Cheetham, T. C., Hansen, J., Deosaransingh, K., Emery, M., Liaw, K.-L. and Jacobsen, S. J. (2012), Surveillance of autoimmune conditions following routine use of quadrivalent human papillomavirus vaccine. Journal of Internal Medicine, 271: 193–203. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2796.2011.02467.x

Arnheim-Dahlström, L., Pasternak, B.Svanström, H., Sparén, P., Hviid, AAutoimmune, neurological, and venous thromboembolic adverse events after immunisation of adolescent girls with quadrivalent human papillomavirus vaccine in Denmark and Sweden: cohort study

CDC Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR). Human Papillomavirus Vaccination Coverage Among Adolescent Girls, 2007–2012, and Postlicensure Vaccine Safety Monitoring, 2006–2013 — United States July 26, 2013 / 62(29);591-595

CDC Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS). Last updated July 24, 2013. Retrieved February 8, 2015.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Food and Drug Administration. Do Your Part for Vaccine Safety: Report to VAERS. Retrieved February 8, 2015.

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Categories: Ages + Stages, Infectious Disease + Vaccines, School-Aged Children, Science 101 + Mythbusting, Tweens + Teens