Katie Couric Apologizes for Anti-Vax Episode, but It’s Not Enough

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Dec 12, 2013, 8:00 AM EST

Last week, I wrote about how unhappy I was with an episode of Katie Couric’s daytime talk show, where the topic was the HPV vaccine Gardasil. Instead of a segment talking about the wonderful benefits of this vaccination and the thousands of lives it will save every year due to the prevention of cervical cancer, she instead spent the majority of the time interviewing people who claim—without any solid evidence—that the vaccine caused injuries to loved ones.

I was not alone in my view; all across the Net people criticized Couric for that unfair segment. I’m somewhat happy to now report that, to some extent, Couric listened. She has issued an apology and a follow-up both on the talk-show site and at Huffington Post (of all places!). However, while I’m pleased she listened, I still think she missed the boat.

She wrote:

Last week we devoted several segments on my TV talk show to the issues surrounding the HPV (human papillomavirus) vaccine. Learning about this relatively recent preventive measure is tremendously important, and I felt it was a subject well worth exploring. Following the show, and in fact before it even aired, there was criticism that the program was too anti-vaccine and anti-science, and in retrospect, some of that criticism was valid. We simply spent too much time on the serious adverse events that have been reported in very rare cases following the vaccine.

I have some problems with this. The biggest is simple, and one I said before: There is absolutely no evidence that the reactions reported by the two families had anything to do with the vaccination. So even saying “serious adverse events” links them to the vaccine. I would’ve been less unhappy if she had used the word “allegedly,” but only a bit.

My reaction to her statement is exacerbated when she writes:

That's why we had two mothers on the show who reported adverse reactions after their daughters had been vaccinated for HPV. One could hardly get out of bed for three years, and the other tragically died. There is no definitive proof that these two situations were related to the vaccine.

While this is closer to the mark, it’s still the wrong attitude. It’s not that there’s no definitive proof; there’s no evidence at all. As I wrote in my other post on this, what the women experienced happened after they got the vaccines, but that does not tie the experience to the vaccines. The way Couric phrased this, it still seems like the burden of proof is on the people who support the vaccine, not the people who make the claims against it. That’s totally backwards.

I’m glad Couric understands that the segment spent far too much time talking about the claims of adverse effects, but I strongly suspect she still hasn’t gotten to the core of my own problem with her segment: that she gave any time at all to anti-vaxxers. Given what Seth Mnookin wrote about this—the producers of the show understood the reality and need for vaccinations, and initially claimed they wanted to inform people who still incorrectly think vaccines are linked to autism—the final segment aired is even more troublesome. Even though she did have a doctor taking the side of evidence-based medicine and promoting the vaccine, there was no real counter to the anti-vax ideas being promulgated.

So let me be clear: I’m happy Couric apologized for the segment after listening to the criticism, but given her phrasing, I’m not sure she really understood what some of the criticism meant. And it comes too late anyway; the episode aired and the damage has been done. I’d be much happier if she now moved forward and did another segment about the benefits of vaccination, but judging from the last paragraph of her article on the show site, it doesn’t look like she plans to.

That’s too bad. She and her producers may have done lasting damage to the health of many people who, after watching her program, will now be frightened into opting out of getting a vaccine that has wonderful benefits and extremely low risk.