Seth Mnookin says Katie Couric is fear-mongering on HPV vaccine

Seth Mnookin, author of The Panic Virus, and blogging under that same title, writes,Katie Couric promotes dangerous fear mongering with show on the HPV vaccine.” Excerpt:

On July 10, 2012, I received an email from a producer at Katie, Katie Couric’s daytime talk show, about a show the program was planning on vaccines. Here was the pitch:

I am interested in talking to Seth Mnookin about his book ‘The Panic Virus.’ I am researching a story about parents who opt out of immunizations for their children because of their personal beliefs. As Seth knows, parents’ fears have lead to a resurgence of diseases like measles and Pertussis and it poses a real danger to society. The goal of the hour will be to better inform the public that still questions links between vaccination and autism and need to better understand the scientific truth.

Over a period of about a month, the producer and I spoke for a period of several hours before she told me that the show was no longer interested in hearing from me on air. Still, I came away from the interaction somewhat heartened: The producer seemed to have a true grasp of the dangers of declining vaccination rates and she stressed repeatedly that her co-workers, including Couric herself, did not view this as an “on the one hand, on the other hand” issue but one in which facts and evidence clearly lined up on one side — the side that overwhelmingly supports the importance and efficacy of vaccines.

Apparently, that was all a load of crap. Here’s the teaser for tomorrow’s show on the HPV vaccine

The HPV vaccine is considered a life-saving cancer preventer … but is it a potentially deadly dose for girls? Meet a mom who claims her daughter died after getting the HPV vaccine, and hear all sides of the HPV vaccine controversy.

….But hey, you know, what’s years of data based on hundreds of thousands of verifiable results when you have a single “mom who claims her daughter died after getting the HPV vaccine,” right Katie?

Couric has side-stepped the evidence and journalism ethics on other occasions with other health care topics, as we’ve written about in the past.  Examples:

Addendum on December 6:

Many other voices have joined in the criticism of Couric’s program.  Among them:

Addendum on December 11: Couric blogged: “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. More emphasis should have been given to the safety and efficacy of the HPV vaccines.”  But this statement drew even more criticism, as in the following:

  • CBS News reported: “One bioethicist opined that presenting the anecdotal reports of extreme side effects did more negative damage to people than it positively contributed to a debate.“The problem in TV and all media, (is) the human interest drives the story,” Dr. Arthur Caplan, director of the division of medical ethics at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City, told CBS News last week. “In science and public health, it doesn’t, or it’s at risk of grave harm.” He added, “If you want to do a show every day that spotlights anecdotal claims about the health effects of cell phones or curative powers of megavitamins or dangers of airplane contrail vapors, you can certainly fill up lots of programming, but I don’t think you’re doing anyone a service.”
  • An LA Times columnist wrote: “Katie Couric backs off from her anti-vaccine show – but not enough.”
  • On the Respectful Insolence blog: “It’s gratifying to see that Couric and her producers are feeling the heat. It’s obvious from a rather blatant notpology that Couric posted on that wretched hive of scum and antivaccine quackery, The Huffington Post, which she entitled ‘Furthering the Conversation on the HPV Vaccine.’ I suppose that’s what Couric managed to do, but so minimally as to be virtually pointless. Basically, what Couric does is whine, justify, and (sort of) partially apologize for screwing up so royally.”


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Comments (4)

Please note, comments are no longer published through this website. All previously made comments are still archived and available for viewing through select posts.

Laurence Alter

December 9, 2013 at 9:59 am

May I ask why you would listen to Katie Couric? What’s next: Oprah?


Laurence Alter


December 9, 2013 at 1:59 pm

Why no mention that Gardasil researcher Dr. Diane Harper appeared on Couric’s show, raising valid questions about safety and efficacy?

“Dr. Harper joins a number of consumer watchdogs, vaccine safety advocates, and parents who question the vaccine’s risk-versus-benefit profile. She says data available for Gardasil shows that it lasts five years; there is no data showing that it remains effective beyond five years.”

Instead you focus on a generalist celebrity, and reinforce the “hysterical mother” stereotype. Shame on you.

    Gary Schwitzer

    December 9, 2013 at 2:44 pm

    Dr. Harper’s appearance on the program was self-evident to anyone who watched it or who read most of the critiques that I linked to in my post (She was mentioned in the Forbes piece I linked to…the Slate piece I linked to…the Daily Beast piece I linked to…the TIME piece I linked to…and the Tara Haelle piece I linked to.)

    Let me respond to your line – “Instead you focus on a generalist celebrity and reinforce the ‘hysterical mother’ stereotype. Shame on you.” Shame on whom? Me? Or did you mean Seth Mnookin and the authors of the critical pieces on Forbes, Daily Beast, Slate, Salon, TIME, USA Today and elsewhere?

    This site is about critiquing journalism. That is why we would focus on the decisions made by the host of a show and her producers.

    If anything, I probably should have included something about this perspective that a physician who follows my blog just wrote to me:

    “The irony, Gary, is that Gardasil is an almost certainly unimportant product of profit-driven research — it “fixes” a surrogate marker, but has never been shown to impact actual patient outcomes … and very likely does not. So while bizarre fear-mongering like that of the Couric show is indeed really awful … appropriate criticism of this particular vaccine is also unable to find the light of day.”

Jeanne Lenzer

December 9, 2013 at 4:54 pm

I agree with the physician comments you quote, Gary, when he says the vaccine only fixes a surrogate marker – we’ve seen plenty of those useless fellows come and go, right? Which brings me to the reasons I don’t think the value of the vaccine is proven – we’re lacking not only any evidence of clinical efficacy (for readers unfamiliar with this, the vaccine has not been shown to reduce cervical cancer, instead it has only been shown to partially limit some markers that may or may not go on to develop as cancer) , we’re lacking a benefit beyond routine pap smears, which must be performed despite vaccination. Otis Brawley, chief scientific and medical officer of the American Cancer Society told me they did a review of all women who died of cervical cancer – and none had had a Pap test within 10 years. In other words, women who had regular Pap tests weren’t among those women who die of cervical cancer.

As for head and neck cancers, we’re jumping the gun to use the vaccine for that reason. Although there is appealing logic to suggest it’s a brilliant idea, as the saying goes (and has proven to be the case too often in medicine): “The road to hell is paved with biological plausibility.” Evidence first, please. Action after.

For more on the hard numbers (not anecdotes and bloated claims) regarding the actual performance of the HPV vaccine, readers might want to read my Discover articles: and