An Open Letter to Katie Couric

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.

Notepad with the statement "Dear Katie Couric"

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.


Featured photo by Jamie Bernstein with special thanks to Eric who let me use his lovely, if slightly water damaged, notepad.

Jamie Bernstein

Jamie Bernstein is a data, stats, policy and economics nerd who sometimes pretends she is a photographer. She is @uajamie on Twitter and Instagram. If you like my work here at Skepchick & Mad Art Lab, consider sending me a little sumthin' in my TipJar: @uajamie

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  1. I think this is good, but it does lead me to one question, what does the skeptic community actually do?

    It seems that most of the time skeptics are other making anti-anti-vax campaigns, railing against holistics, or criticizing obvious hoaxes. Is there anything the organized skeptic communities does outside of these things?

    1. Even if it were true that’s all organized skeptics take action on (it isn’t) they are worthwhile enough efforts. Skeptical people can organize, and regularly do, around any issue we care about. Within the skeptic community we have a lot of intersecionality, and within that we have many shared issues that get organized around. Some issues might seem to be at the forefront, but when anti vaxers are going about the business of making leaving my house a riskier proposition than it already is I find it heartening to see people standing up to that nonsense. Standing up vocally to one problem doesn’t mean we can’t, or don’t, turn around to lambast other problems. Unverified claims are made everyday and it would be quite a job to address them all at once, but in addition to what you listed, there are plenty of social justice issues we can and do organize. For example, here in Texas we had organizers from the skeptic community involved in setting up protests against the Texas senate because we were skeptical of the archaic view that women aren’t people.

      1. Skeptics have been really committed and effective here in the science education ridiculousness, too.

  2. For me, the worst part of her “apology” was this.

    “Some people say their children have suffered from a variety of medical problems after the vaccination, and there have even been a few reports of death. As a journalist, I felt that we couldn’t simply ignore these reports.”

    As if what she is doing is some kind of good journalism. A journalist should investigate information before blindly reporting it. What she really did was report what was sensational and would give her the highest ratings possible.

  3. Many years ago for work I did a survey of the adverse reactions associated with radio contrast agents. These are some of the safest compounds in use and the risks are extremely low.
    From memory, the main potential side effect was anaphylactic shock, which is easily handled using steroid cover. When you removed those events you were getting down to maybe the one in a million level or so, and that is where the “fun” began. There was some spectacular stuff, such as somebody who sloughed a yard of necrotic intestine. It turns out that these sorts of effects were nothing to do with the injected material itself, but rather were caused by injecting into the actual wall of a vessel and thereby splitting it. With a competent operator, this would virtually never occur.

    Doing that survey brought home to me how cherry picking amongst the rarest events could so easily give the exact opposite wrong impression regarding the safety of a procedure. The corollary of that is that there is always some risk involved, and that has to be balanced against the risk of doing nothing.

    At the same time, I guess it makes for good TV when you present a collection of all the rare and spectacular events. I myself am a big fan of “Air Crash Investigations” yet that doesn’t stop me flying regularly. There is that slight vicarious thrill of danger (plus the useful information that your chances of survival are slightly better at the rear of the plane!)

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