Bad information about vaccines can have life-or-death consequences. Katie Couric, with her roughly 2.7 million viewers, has the potential to be the kind of trusted information source that families need, especially in light of her role as an advocate for cancer prevention. Yet when a recent segment of her syndicated talk show fueled highly speculative fears about the HPV vaccine, it provided an inadvertent lesson about how misconceptions about health issues take hold.
The show portrayed the safety of vaccines for HPV — a sexually transmitted virus that’s usually dormant, but can lead to cancer — as a subject for debate, pitting parents’ personal tragedies against medical expertise. But there is no evidence that HPV vaccines cause harms beyond the normal range of side effects associated with vaccines. The two HPV vaccines available, Gardasil and Cervarix, are the surest way to prevent millions of new infections each year, along with HPV-related cancers. Couric sidestepped that reality, giving voice instead to the emotion of two mothers who were convinced, without real proof, that their daughters had been badly harmed by the vaccines.
Couric has since said she may have given viewers the wrong impression about the safety and efficacy of the HPV vaccines. Unfortunately, this statement lacked the emotional punch of her original broadcast, and that’s the problem. On television, sincere but misleading anecdotal testimony can overpower even strong, peer-reviewed statistical evidence.