Since Gardasil made its debut, 15,716 suspected and actual side effects of the HPV vaccine have been reported to VAERS, our oh-so-fallible watchdog system. Just 15,716 bad reactions to who knows how many millions of vaccinations given—statistically insignificant, one might say, especially since so many were minor. Pain at the injection site, perhaps, or a little fainting spell.
The 736 suspected serious Gardasil side effects to date include 24 deaths, 147 life-threatening reactions, 255 permanent disabilities, 496 hospitalizations, 127 prolonged hospitalizations, and 544 emergency room visits.
And of course it’s important to remember that just because a report has been made to VAERS, that doesn’t mean the connection with Gardasil has been proven. In fact, some of the deaths almost certainly weren’t connected. It’s just as important to note that the system is notoriously fallible and that as few as one in ten reactions are reported, perhaps in part because information sheets handed to parents guide them to make a VAERS report only in the case of an immediate allergic reaction; there’s no mention at all of more subtle reactions.
But still, statistically insignificant.
Unless you think about the lesson we learned—or should have learned—from a doctoral student’s refinement of her thesis advisor’s study.
Remember that scandal, just a few years back? Harvard’s Dr. Chester Douglass took a research grant from the NIEH to study the possibility that fluoride in our water supply could cause osteosarcoma, a very rare bone cancer usually resulting in amputation or death. Douglass looked at 139 males and females with osteosarcoma and 280 matched controls, all of whom drank fluoridated tap water, and duly reported back that nope, there was no problem. Statistically speaking. Unfortunately for him he quoted a thesis study by Elise Bassin, his graduate student, as if it supported his conclusions. The thesis itself, though, was mysteriously unavailable to health researchers.
Eventually some terriers from the Environmental Working Group obtained limited access. And discovered that smart Elise had worked a lot harder and a lot more intelligently than her professor. Theorizing that children are much more likely to be susceptible to any harmful effects of fluoride at a time when their bones are growing rapidly, she focused only on the under-20s and their matched controls, and furthermore verified fluoride levels in the tap water drunk by all the children for each year in their lives, rather than just looking at the water they were drinking at the time of the study.
I won’t overload you with the details of her very plausible theory. The end result, however, was that yes, according to her study fluoridated water indeed appeared to raise the (tiny) risk of osteosarcoma in young males by 500 to 700 percent, with a particular risk between the ages of 6 and 8. Certainly a very different conclusion from that reached by Douglass, who moonlighted as editor-in-chief of the Colgate Oral Report and who chose to merge the statistics into the general population.
So back to Gardasil. If you look at the VAERS numbers with a traditional view to collateral damage, i.e. that a) a few will necessarily suffer for the greater good and b) numbers for nasties like motor neurone disease aren’t really all that different from what you might reasonably expect in the general population, then you probably see no cause to study Gardasil any further. You can make the side effects effectively disappear. by merging them into the general population.
But if you look at people rather than statistics; if you’re one of the young women affected, or the parent of one, you might wish like hell that you had an Elise Bassin looking at these happy statistics and applying a curious mind to them.
A curious scientific mind might look, for instance, at 97 cases of arthralgia, 4 of rheumatoid arthritis, 4 of juvenile arthritis and 3 of arthritis reported to VAERS, plus 2 cases of rheumatoid arthritis, 5 of arthritis, 1 of reactive arthritis, and 1 of juvenile arthritis seen in Merck’s initial study—a three-fold increase over the controls, who also received the aluminum-containing adjuvant—and wonder if these girls came from a subset. A subset of some kind that required only an environmental trigger, such as a vaccine, to wreak havoc on young bodies. Find the subset and you find a future group that should avoid Gardasil, that would be the way a Bassin-style mind would look at it.
A read through the VAERS reports suggests all kinds of subsets that should be studied by someone with a fine and open mind, someone who’s willing to put in the time to get exhaustive histories from these girls. Someone who might look at Jenny Tetlock’s devastating bout with extraordinarily rapid-onset ALS-like symptoms—the symptoms that killed her at 13—and at the two Gardasil girls just like her, and be consumed with the desire to know about any common factors and how they might have made those girls vulnerable. Someone who might study 68 reported cases of convulsions and 11 of epilepsy. Who might put out a call for similar cases in the general population, cases that went unreported just as the two ALS-type cases like Tetlock’s went unreported until her parents put up a blog.
Who might wonder why so many different immune diseases appear to be triggered by Gardasil, and instead of saying “Statistically, it doesn’t merit studying” would say “Damn, I just have to figure this out, so that we know which girls shouldn’t get the vaccine in future.”
We can make potential side effects statistically disappear alright. But we shouldn’t want to.