Gardasil and Mortality

womenVaccination is one of public health’s greatest achievements, but today’s sociopolitical climate promotes unfounded fears. In turn, this fear-mongering has led to outbreaks of otherwise rare infectious diseases, such as measles and whooping cough. Human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccines protect against two HPV strains that cause 70 percent of cervical cancers, which itself is the second-most common type of cancer in women worldwide. Immunization has the potential to eliminate these viral strains, which would save lives and reduce health care costs — but, unfortunately, vaccine horror stories are a dime a dozen on the Internet, and HPV vaccines like Gardasil are popular targets for vaccine opponents.


Of 57 million Gardasil doses given in the United States, 40 confirmed deaths have occurred in recipients. However, these deaths were not caused by vaccination.


There are many claims flying around that Gardasil causes serious side effects, including death. However, claims that Gardasil can lead to death aren’t supported by good evidence. Generally speaking, people who make these accusations obtain their information from a publicly accessible database called the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS), which collects claims of adverse events from anyone — including health care providers, patients, or family members.

What is an adverse event?

Most people don’t realize that the phrase “adverse event” cannot be used interchangeably with the term “side effect.” An adverse event is something that occurs after a vaccination — such as a headache, seizure, depression, or death. It could happen one second after being injected with a vaccine or more than a year afterward. It could be a coincidence, or it might be caused by vaccination. For example, if two weeks after receiving a flu shot I get a headache, I could legitimately claim it is an “adverse event,” even if my headache had nothing to do with the shot. An adverse event is only called a side effect if it is found to have been caused by vaccination.

What is VAERS?

Despite its occasional misrepresentation in print media, social media, and the blogosphere, VAERS is not a source of information about verified side effects — it is a database of adverse events that have been self-reported by the public. Anyone can submit a report to VAERS — heck, I could claim that the flu shot gave me telekinetic powers in addition to that headache, and it would be recorded in the database. That doesn’t mean that you should worry about coming down with a nasty case of telekinesis after getting a flu shot at the corner drug store. Continue reading

Gardasil and Fertility

girlsThere is currently a lot of fear about vaccines out there, and if you pay attention to the news, you’ve probably caught a whiff of it. This panic was launched by a 1998 Lancet article authored by Andrew Wakefield, who claimed that the MMR vaccine causes autism. Much ink was spilled unpacking that fiasco, but, in a nutshell, Wakefield falsified data and conducted unethical, invasive procedures on children, and was consequently stripped of his medical license. Researchers couldn’t duplicate his findings, The Lancet retracted his article, and Wakefield was thoroughly discredited.


One case report asserting a link between Gardasil and premature ovarian failure was authored by an anti-abortion activist.


But vaccine fears still linger. For example, there are some scary stories floating around about Gardasil, the vaccine that protects against the four most common strains of human papillomavirus (HPV), the sexually transmitted virus that can cause genital warts or certain types of cancer. These stories include claims that it has caused premature ovarian failure leading to infertility. About 57 million doses of HPV vaccines have been given in the United States, however, and in such a large group there are going to be some unexplained phenomena. Without good evidence, we can’t jump to the conclusion that a vaccine caused them.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the most common Gardasil side effects are fainting; dizziness; nausea; headache; fever; hives; and pain, redness, or swelling at the injection site. These reactions aren’t considered to be serious, most people don’t experience any of them, and they’re only temporary. However, while surfing the Internet or scrolling through your Facebook wall, you might have come across claims that Gardasil causes infertility — specifically, premature ovarian failure in girls and young women. What should you make of these horror stories?

A couple of medical journals have described unexplained ovarian failure in four patients who also received HPV vaccines. Medical journals publish many kinds of articles, and a “case report” is a description of one or a few patients’ experiences. Unlike an article that summarizes the results of a rigorous scientific study involving hundreds or thousands of subjects, a case report might just highlight an unusual situation. They aren’t considered to be sources of “definitive” statements about much of anything. Nevertheless, in 90 percent of patients with premature ovarian failure, doctors can’t find clear genetic or physiological causes for the condition, making it an interesting topic for a medical journal to cover — and ripe for speculation. Continue reading

Mythbusting: Does Abortion Cause Breast Cancer?

breast-examNew England Journal of Medicine. Journal of the American Medical Association. Annals of Internal MedicineJournal of American Physicians and Surgeons.

One of these things is not like the others, one of these things just doesn’t belong. But how can most laypeople differentiate between these medical journals? The dry, pithy titles seem to tell you exactly what’s underneath their covers. So if I told you that, according to a study in the Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons, abortion increases risk for breast cancer, would you believe me? Well, why not? The Association of American Physicians and Surgeons (AAPS), which publishes the journal, sounds legit.


Health decisions must be guided by reliable evidence, and when agenda-driven policies misinform, patients cannot make informed decisions.


Except that AAPS is infamous for its agenda-driven views, and its journal is used to deny climate change and the dangers of secondhand smoking, promote the debunked idea that vaccines cause autism, advocate for closed borders in overtly racist anti-immigration pieces, reject the causal relationship between HIV and AIDS, and perpetuate a far-right political worldview. The organization opposes any government involvement in health care, including the FDA, Medicare, the Affordable Care Act, and regulation of the medical profession.

Medical journals, like all scientific journals, are where researchers share and critique each other’s work. Before anything is published it undergoes “peer review,” in which experts evaluate studies for quality — good study design, reasonable interpretation of results, etc. The Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons, however, has been criticized for placing ideology over the presentation of meticulously gathered scientific evidence, and is not indexed in academic databases like MEDLINE. In 2007, AAPS joined conservative organizations in filing a lawsuit against the FDA, arguing against emergency contraception’s over-the-counter status. So, when the journal publishes articles purporting a link between abortion and breast cancer, we should all be raising our eyebrows in collective skepticism.

You might have heard abortion opponents’ claims that abortion can raise one’s risk for breast cancer later in life. So let’s get something out of the way right now: The very best scientific evidence does not support a link between abortion and breast cancer. Prominent medical organizations, including the National Cancer Institute, the American Cancer Society, the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and the World Health Organization, have all examined the entirety of the research and found that the largest and most methodologically sound studies fail to reveal a link between abortion and breast cancer. Yet still opponents of abortion include this factoid in misinformation campaigns to instill fear into people making difficult, private decisions, often during periods of vulnerability. Continue reading