HPV Vaccine Side Effects and Katie Couric: Why Would She Suggest The Vaccination Is Harmful?

On Wednesday afternoon, television journalist Katie Couric brought HPV anti-vaccine activism from the fringe into the mainstream in a "what were you thinking?" segment of her daytime talk show, Katie. Couric aired a debate on the "HPV Vaccine Controversy," which, until now, was not a thing that existed. The segment featured two emotional parents of daughters whom they believed had been harmed — and in one case killed — by the vaccine. Exhaustive trials of the HPV vaccine indicate that nothing of the sort is possible. Neither parent, nor the vaccine-skeptic "specialist' Couric featured, could back up their claims with medical fact.

Here's what we do know about the HPV vaccination: it's slashed the cancer-causing HPV infection in teenage girls by half — even though only a third of young women have received it. Though Gardasil and Cervatrix are actually less effective for black women, for many, the infection-busting vaccine can kick in after just one of the three recommended dosages.

When it comes to vaccinations in general, there is a small but loud fringe community who believe they're harmful. Actress and ex-Playboy Bunny Jenny McCarthy is a champion of the anti-vaccine movement: McCarthy publicly insists that vaccines cause autism. (There was a study that famously backed up her claims, which was investigated by the medical community and found to be, and we quote, an "elaborate fraud.") After the scare and the parental anxiety that followed, large-scale research into the autism-vaccine link has found, repeatedly, that there's no truth to the connection.

Couric's decision to air this HPV "debate" could be more damaging than McCarthy's activism. Having reported for all of the Big Three networks (ABC, CBS, and NBC) and earned serious credibility as a journalist, Couric's implicit suggestion in airing the segment — that there's another side to all of the glory HPV has been getting — will affect the mainstream perception of the vaccination.

Though Couric aired what, in other circumstances, would appear to be a balanced debate — one medical specialist was present to refute the claims of the devastated parents and vaccine-skeptic doctor, plus Couric noted that she herself had given her daughters the vaccine — she also presented the notion that there's a debate to be had at all. A debate by definition is two opposing, but legitimate, sides of an argument. Purposefully or not, Couric handed the anti-vaccine movement legitimacy.

But there was no medical legitimacy to be found on the anti-vaccine side of Couric's debate. The parents and doctor couldn't provide valid scientific evidence to support their argument — but they did have emotional pull on their side. It's unimaginable to lose a child, and the mother Couric featured is convinced that Gardisil killed her daughter (who died of unknown causes 18 days after receiving the vaccination.)

"Unfortunately," writes Slate's Amanda Marcotte, "Couric and her producers allowed [the medical specialist's] facts to be totally overshadowed by the heartrending tales told by the two mothers." Couric's talk show is watched by over a million viewers. It's impossible to say how many mothers will be influenced by the emotional appeal of Couric's segment.

It's estimated that, already, 50,000 American teenagers who didn’t get the HPV vaccine when they could have will ultimately die from cervical cancer. Now that there's a "debate" to be had over the reliability of the HPV vaccine — a debate that did not exist until now — it adds fuel to fire for those who oppose HPV for other reasons. (Like that other totally logical fear that the vaccine will somehow encourage young girls to have sex.)

One in three female American teenagers receives the HPV vaccine, but in Europe, the rate is closer to eight in ten. The U.S. has been reluctant to catch up for several reasons: some insurance providers don't cover the vaccine, and people like to think that young girls aren't having sex, and therefore don't need it.

Though the vaccine was initially targeted at girls, it's now recommended for all young boys as well. According to a new study, HPV is now proving increasingly common amongst gay young men. The infection, which affects roughly half of sexually-active men and women, leads to 90 percent of anal cancers, 40 percent of vulvar, vaginal, or penile cancers, and 12 percent of oral and pharyngeal cancers, according to the CDC.

No, the anti-vaccine movement isn't taken seriously. But Katie Couric is. And HPV vaccination, which has been shown numerous times to be akin to a cancer-busting miracle, had enough stacked up against it before Couric gave credibility to its opposition.