HPV Vaccine, Katie, Cancer Prevention: Missing the Science

Paul A. Offit, MD


December 13, 2013

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Hi. I am Paul Offit. I am speaking to you from the Vaccine Education Center at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, in Pennsylvania. I want to talk about a television program that aired last week on a show called Katie, hosted by Katie Couric. This particular program took on the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine. Katie Couric brought a woman onto the show whose child, an 18-year-old, had died of uncertain causes about 2 and a half weeks ago following a third dose of the HPV vaccine. This show unnecessarily scared parents about the safety of this vaccine.

What do we know about this vaccine? We know that the HPV vaccine prevents the only known cause of cervical cancer.[1] We know that every year in the United States, about 18,000 cancers are diagnosed in women, most of which are cervical cancer related to HPV types 16 and 18, and could be prevented by the types 16 and 18 that are contained in that vaccine. We know that every year in the United States, about 8000 boys and men get cancers caused by HPV, and that most of those are caused by HPV types 16 and 18, also preventable with the vaccine.

We know that that vaccine was tested for 7 years in 30,000 women before licensure. We know that it has had extensive safety testing post-licensure. We know that about 40 million doses of that vaccine have been administered safely, and we know that absolutely none of those facts were presented on that show. The sad irony here is that Katie Couric lost a husband and a sister to [colon] cancer. For that reason, she has become a vigorous activist in educating the public about the need for getting a colonoscopy to prevent that awful disease.

But in the HPV vaccine we arguably have the most powerful cancer-preventing vaccine for humans, and she handles it in a manner in which there is no way that the viewer would have an accurate understanding of that vaccine. In this case, for Katie Couric, if one event follows another, then it must be caused by the other, which is clearly not true. Even though the rooster crows every morning and the sun comes out, that does not mean that the sun is coming out because of the rooster crowing. And the HPV vaccine did not cause the death, which Katie Couric claimed.

The good news about this is that a lot of bloggers and scientists, science activists and scientific bloggers, stepped up to refute this., Forbes, Slate, and a number of others also stepped up to criticize Katie Couric. I believe that this is really the good news because, frankly, 10 or 15 years ago, I do not believe that response would have happened. Thank you.

Editor's note: In a December 10 blog for the Huffington Post , Katie Couric responded to criticisms and acknowledged problems with balance in the recent coverage of the HPV vaccine on her show. "We simply spent too much time on the serious adverse events that have been reported in very rare cases following the vaccine. More emphasis should have been given to the safety and efficacy of the HPV vaccines," she wrote.


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