Is Katie Couric the Next Jenny McCarthy?

A former Playboy Bunny spreading misinformation is bad enough

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Frederick M. Brown / Getty Images

Katie Couric at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, Calif., on July 26, 2012

There is no “HPV-vaccine controversy.” At least, not when it comes to the injection’s safety. And yet, that was the title of the lead segment on Katie Couric’s daytime talk show, Katie, this afternoon. The nearly half-hour story, which the program called their “Big Conversation,” centered around two mothers who believe the vaccine for human papillomavirus (HPV) harmed their daughters.

Among the guests was Emily Tarsell, a mother who claims the death of her daughter Christina was caused by the HPV vaccine Gardasil in 2008. Another mother-and-daughter pair, Rosemary and Lauren Mathis, believe Lauren developed a bizarre illness characterized by nausea and fatigue because of the vaccine. Rosemary Mathis is now the director of the anti-HPV organization, SaneVax Inc.

Tarsell and Mathis are understandably distraught mothers. But Couric is a journalist.

(MORE: Less Is More: One Instead of Three Doses of HPV Vaccine May Protect Against Cervical Cancer)

The bottom line is that there is no scientific evidence that the HPV vaccine causes adverse effects beyond normal vaccine side effects, such as dizziness, nausea, and pain and redness at the injection site. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), from June 2006 to March 2013, some 57 million doses of HPV vaccines were distributed. In that period, some 22,000 adverse events were reported in girls and women who had received HPV vaccines; 92% of those were classified as nonserious.

The risks of HPV, on the other hand, are quite real. Every year, about 12,000 U.S. women get cervical cancer, and HPV is the leading cause. HPV can also cause other cancers like vulvar, vaginal, penile, anal, and neck and throat cancers, which is why the CDC recommends the vaccine for girls and boys ages 11 or 12 — before most adolescents become sexually active. CDC data show that roughly 79 million Americans have HPV and about 14 million people become infected each year. The HPV vaccine can prevent a good number of these infections, and thus millions of potential cases of cancer.

The two HPV vaccines currently available, Gardasil and Cervarix, are both proved safe through clinical trials, independent studies and postlicensure monitoring. The CDC and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) also continue to track the vaccines’ safety.

And yet Couric has framed the issue as if there were a debate to be had about whether the HPV vaccines are good for the public’s health.

“This kind of coverage is so incredibly irresponsible,” says Seth Mnookin, author of The Panic Virus: The True Story Behind the Vaccine-Autism Controversy. “The danger of saying we are going to present both sides of an issue, when all of the facts line up on one side, is that as far as the audience is concerned, you are giving these sides equal weight. It presents a false impression that there is a legitimate debate here.”

(MORE: The HPV Vaccine and the Case for Race-Based Medicine)

Physicians and medical organizations like the CDC are continuously forced to dispel myths surrounding vaccines. Giving a platform to claims not based in science makes their jobs much harder and puts people’s lives at risk, as we’ve seen with the resurgence of childhood diseases like measles and mumps in places where parents have refused vaccination.

One of Couric’s sources on the program, Dr. Diane Harper, who has studied HPV vaccines, said the vaccine loses efficacy after five years — a claim that research simply does not support. “With that one sentence, she reached who knows how many people who will go out and assume that is true, and tell their friends it is true,” says Mnookin.

Sure, it is possible that Tarsell’s daughter died of a reaction related to the vaccine. Such cases are rare, but possible for any medical procedure. But giving massive publicity to unfounded claims — Couric’s show reaches roughly 2.7 million viewers daily — is very serious.

Take Jenny McCarthy, the actress who is very public about her belief that vaccines play a role in causing autism, even though the link between the two has been debunked time and again. McCarthy’s affiliation with Generation Rescue, an organization that says autism is linked to vaccines, gives her a soapbox to scare parents into reconsidering life-saving vaccinations. McCarthy is not a doctor or scientist, and yet a 2011 survey by the University of Michigan found that 24% of parents say they place “some trust” in information provided by celebrities like McCarthy about vaccine safety.

The damage a former Playboy Bunny has been able to do is bad enough. But Couric’s misdeeds are all the worse given that she’s taken much more seriously than Jenny McCarthy.

MORE: Bad Medicine: Putting Jenny McCarthy on The View Is Media Malpractice