Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Seventeen Magazine’s ‘Scary Sex Rumors’ about the Gardasil HPV Vaccine

Ouch. Seventeen Magazine gets both a carrot and a stick for its September 2010 issue’s ‘Scary Sex Rumors’ item about Gardasil.

Addressing the ‘rumors’ and forwarded emails about how “the HPV vaccine has been killing teenage girls!!” the venerable teen magazine came up with both some sensible advice and some scary sex rumors of its own.

I applaud the writer for noting that “The bottom line is, any vaccine can have some risks, and you need to weigh those risks against the risks of skipping it…talk to your doc, who can help you decide.”

Although most doctors know very little about Gardasil beyond the standard information, still, I like the advice to discuss the HPV vaccine—not just automatically get it—and the acknowledgement that there’s a balance between risks and rewards for each individual, depending on lifestyle and family history.

And I can’t exactly argue with the line “while there have been rare reports of scary side effects, like seizures, they haven’t been directly linked to Gardasil.” They haven’t. While there are some mighty coincidental cases of seizures following Gardasil ( and see here), we’re simply in the follow-up phase where the FDA continues to monitor reports of adverse events like Graves Disease, lupus, Guillain-Barre, ALS, etc., until they can see statistical differences between vaccinated and unvaccinated populations. So far, there have been no links.

I do have to say here that monitoring, of course, involves people taking the initiative to make a report to VAERS even when discouraged by their doctors. It’s thought that potential side effects are both under-reported and over-reported—under-reported because people usually don’t connect the dots unless an adverse event happens immediately; such under-reporting may happen frequently (consider the Jenny Tetlock case, where Ms. Tetlock’s parents discovered two very similar cases of a rapid-onset ALS-type disease that had gone unreported). And side effects may also be over-reported—for instance, at least one of the deaths attributed to Gardasil was due to a car accident, and to the best of my knowledge not because the driver was seizing post-vaccination.

So if you get a vaccine, and then, say, an autoimmune disease, please report it whether you or your doctor think it’s relevant or not. The FDA will sort it out and they can only assess adverse events properly when they’re fully informed .

But where I get angry—actually, really angry—is when I see this sentence. “The chances of having a serious problem are really unlikely (less than 2 in 10,000) but the risk of getting HPV in your lifetime is huge (8 in 10).”

True, 80 percent of women will catch some strain of HPV during their lifetime. What the writer doesn’t mention is that as many as 95 percent of infections are shrugged off by the immune system, leaving behind, it’s thought, a natural immunity. Nor does s/he mention that behaviors such as smoking and poor diet seriously up the risk of an infection becoming persistent and therefore potentially leading to cervical abnormalities, even cervical cancer. Nor does s/he note that because not all oncogenic strains of HPV are included in the vaccine, it’s essential to continue regular gynecological exams. Thus far, trials show overall reductions of anywhere from 17 to 45 percent in colposcopies, cervical abnormalities, etc.
Nope, Seventeen echoes Merck’s marketing campaign, which vastly exaggerates the risks of HPV and minimizes the risks of the vaccine, and doesn’t mention behavioral risks (as in, heavy smokers are 27 TIMES more likely to suffer cervical abnormalities) at all. The implication is that you're highly likely to get cervical cancer if you don't get Gardasil and virtually certain not to get it if you do.

Now that’s a scary sex rumor.


Anonymous said...

Sounds as deep as a typical 17 story gets. No wonder our children are badly informed.

Anonymous said...

My daughter got the first shot and she has been having anaphylaxis and seizures since then. A perfectly normal 13 year old. I warn EVERY parent that this shot is not worth getting!

Anonymous said...

Just so you know, an increased risk of an adverse event happening can be clinically significant without it being statistically significant. If something is rare enough, or the number of people involved total small enough, you can have something happen, say, three times as often with a treatment as with a placebo, and not have it be statistically significant (especially depending upon the level of confidence - ex. 90% vs. 95% vs 99%). Otherwise, I applaud this article for making it clear that one must do some proper research and weigh risk vs. benefit before deciding whether to get this vaccination or not. I personally am electing to hold off on possibly getting Gardasil until more data on the rates and severities of adverse reactions becomes available.