Dear Katie Couric,
This week you posted a response to the critics of your talk show episode on the HPV vaccine who accused you of spending most of the episode overemphasizing the risks of the vaccine to the point of even talking about hypothetical, unproven and unlikely risks or letting your interviewees state completely false “facts” without challenge. I am not writing to you about the HPV episode of your show because frankly I didn’t watch it and read enough reviews of it from others to know that I would not enjoy it. However, I did read your HuffPo response and was appalled at the bad scientific thinking and misunderstandings on display in your article.
You begin your article by saying that you feel some of your critics are right in that you focused too much on the risks of the HPV vaccine and not enough on the benefits. By the middle of your article, you even give some figures from the CDC’s Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS) showing that serious adverse effects from the HPV vaccine were reported in 0.3 of every 10,000 cases, a rate you call “extremely low.” You then go on to state that you were just telling the stories of some of the people who fall in this 0.003%.
You’re right, Katie. 0.003% is “extremely low.” You want to know what’s even lower than that? A number even smaller than 0.003% because the key word you seemed to miss here was “reported.” You see, the VAERS database includes every reported adverse event happening soon after receiving the HPV vaccine. The adverse event does not need to be shown to be related to the vaccine or even plausibly caused by it. It just needs to happen after getting the HPV vaccine.
Anyone can submit a report to VAERS and claims are not verified. In fact, to prove this point some have submitted ridiculous reports such as Jim Laider who submitted a VAERS report claiming that a vaccine turned him into the Incredible Hulk or Kevin Leitch who submitted a report claiming a vaccine turned his daughter into Wonder Woman even though not only is this claim ridiculous but neither he nor his daughter even live in the U.S.
So, if in 0.003% of doses given of the HPV vaccine there was a reported serious adverse event in VAERS, the true number of serious ailments caused by the vaccine would be somewhere between 0% and 0.003% with 0.003% likely being a high estimate. Instead of calling the likelihood of having a serious adverse reaction to the HPV vaccine “extremely low” you should probably be calling it “extremely, extremely…x10 low or possibly even nonexistent.”
In fact, Katie, it’s really too bad you don’t read Skepchick because I actually talked about just how flimsy the data in VAERS was right here on this blog only a couple months ago. On the other hand, all you really needed to do was read the FAQ on the VAERS website where they answered the question “Are all adverse events reported to VAERS caused by vaccines?” with “No.” It’s too bad you didn’t seem to do this very basic research before publishing misleading stats in the HuffPo.
Katie, it’s nice that you’ve given a little bit of an apology for spreading fear-mongering and misinformation about vaccines on your show, but it would have been even better if you’d not continued the spread of misinformation in your apology. Next time please do a little bit more research before repeating misleading stats and learn a little bit about how to interpret the data in VAERS before reporting on it.