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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

Gardasil: More Anti-Vax Nonsense Collapses Under the Gaze of Reality

By Phil Plait

I’ve been seeing an uptick in my social media feeds over the past couple of weeks about anti-vaxxers and their dangerous nonsense. As usual, they’re upset because the real world has once again contradicted their view of it.

First, a new study has shown that, once again, the Gardasil vaccine is not causing widespread health problems.

Gardasil is a vaccine that protects us from the human papillomavirus, or HPV, a nasty bug that causes all sorts of horrid problems like genital warts and cancer of the throat, penis, vulva, vagina, and cervix. In the United States alone, 4,000 women die every year from cervical cancer, roughly one-third of those who get it. By fighting against HPV, Gardasil can seriously cut back on the occurrence of these deaths, and all those other cancers as well. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends it for preteen girls and boys, and it is given in three separate doses spread out over time.

The anti-vaxxers, of course, have gone ballistic over this, trying to tie Gardasil to all sorts of problems, including the deaths of some young girls after receiving it. But here’s the thing they miss: Gardasil has been given to tens of millions of girls. When you have a population that huge, just by random statistical chance a few girls will, sadly, die not long after the vaccination due to unrelated circumstances.

Of course, shortly after receiving the vaccination some girls will win the lottery, and others will read a book, and a large number will get good grades in a science class. Are those due to the vaccination as well?

Of course not. But that’s the anti-vax logic.

Gardasil has been blamed for a lot of illnesses, and in a new study, researchers looked at the incidence of two such issues—complex regional pain syndrome and postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome. They showed that the evidence doesn’t support any connection between these syndromes and Gardasil, and the incidence of these syndromes is just what you’d expect from chance in the age group examined.

So once again Gardasil is falsely accused, and comes out on top. Not that this will stop anti-vaxxers, of course. If evidence goes against them, they a) ignore it, b) yell louder, and/or c) say you’re a Big Pharma shill.

Another reason I’ve seen more anti-vax baloney is because on Facebook my brother linked (skeptically, of course) to an anti-science group saying that a young girl died after getting the Gardasil shot. That group had a link up to the Natural News site—a site so full of quackery it’s like they’re cloning ducks there—which breathlessly threw around the usual pile of anti-vax fertilizer.

Now, the real story is tragic and awful: In 2014, a 12-year-old girl died within hours of getting a Gardasil shot. Her parents were devastated and (as reported) believed that the vaccine caused her death.

However, what Natural News and the Facebook anti-science group didn’t report is that the medical examiner found that girl apparently died of an antihistamine overdose. To make this more clear, the examiner is quoted as saying, “There is no evidence that any vaccination caused or contributed to her death.”

So again there you have it. It’s another typical anti-vax call to arms due to a complete and gross misunderstanding of how reality works. To them, if something happens after something else, it was caused by that first thing. This is the classic post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy. But the Universe doesn’t work that way.

And this kind of bad thinking has consequences. In the U.S. alone, 79 million people are infected with HPV. That’s more than a quarter of the entire population. Fourteen million new cases crop up every year. Gardasil can substantially cut those numbers back—it’s working, and working well, in the U.S. and Australia—but not if the fearmongering falsehoods by anti-vaxxers get traction.

As I’ve noted before, Gardasil finds itself in a weird crossfire; anti-vaxxers (who fall across the entire political spectrum) hate it reflexively, of course, but also those on the far right fight against it as well because it’s connected with women’s sexual health. In both cases, prejudice and anti-science rhetoric are supporting the needless suffering of millions of people, and the deaths of thousands.

Anti-vax beliefs are dangerous. They certainly lead to disease outbreaks, and this can cause deaths, including the deaths of infants. Many of their claims are based on fraud, yet they still enjoy the support of talk show hosts and even Congress.

If you wonder why I write on this topic, there you go. When anti-science rhetoric puts people in danger, it’s important to talk about it. And it’s important to put your money where your mouth is. That’s why my family is up to date on all their vaccinations, and why my own daughter got the full course of Gardasil. Vaccines save lives, and their benefits hugely, hugely outweigh their minuscule risk. It’s really just that simple.

My thanks to the wonderful Refutations to Anti-Vaccine Memes on Facebook for the link to the Gardasil study, and to my brother Sid for the link to the Natural News baloney.

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