Sunday, July 13, 2008

Gardasil and Irresponsible Journalism

Last Monday the CBS Early Show ran a story about a 14-year-old girl named Jenny who is now nearly completely paralyzed by a degenerative mucle disease of unknown cause. It just so happens that she received Gardasil, the vaccine against human papillomavirus (HPV) 15 months ago, like so many other girls her age. Her parents spoke to CBS News with the hope that coverage of Jenny’s plight would help them find “comparables” - other patients with the same symptoms, so that her doctors could discern the actual cause of her disease. Nevertheless, CBS chose to run the online story with the more sensationalist headline, “HPV Vaccine Linked to Teen’s Paralysis?” (, July 7).

Four days later, FOX news went one step further with a story entitled “HPV Vaccine Blamed for Teen’s Paralysis” (, July 11).

This is biased journalism at its worst. Who exactly is blaming Gardasil for Jenny’s disease - Fox News? In fact the Fox News article is full of errors. For one, the article attributes to Jenny’s parents a statement made by a spokesperson for Merck, Gardasil’s manufacturer. In addition, the article uses the word “casually” in place of “causally”. For the record, what a Merck spokesperson actually said was, “We’re aware of this case and based on the facts that we’ve received, the information doesn’t suggest that this event was causally associated with vaccination.”

On their blog site on July 7 (see, the parents expressed disappointment with the CBS news coverage, saying “The family believes that there may be a link between Jenny’s health and the HPV vaccination……” “But, there is no medical consensus on whether this hypothesis is stronger than other possible explanations.”

Jenny’s parents are obviously scientifically literate. They know how to distinguish between a hypothesis and a scientifically justifiable conclusion. As you’re discussing the importance of being scientifically literate in your classroom, Jenny’s parents’ blog site and the two news articles would make interesting topics for discussion.

One final thought: Do you think that the biased news coverage of Gardasil could be intentional, given that conservatives don’t like the idea of a vaccine against a sexually transmitted disease being given to young girls? What do your students think?

No comments: