Were the Gardasil and Cervarix Vaccines for HPV Causing Girls to Die?

Like many other vaccines, Cervarix and Gardasil — which protect against human papillomavirus (HPV), which can cause cervical cancer — were targeted by the right-wing blog ecosystem and at least one budding right-wing presidential candidate.

Michele Bachmann provoked angry rebukes from medical professionals in 2011 after railing against then-Gov. Rick Perry of Texas for signing an executive order four years earlier requiring HPV vaccinations for schoolchildren in his state. Though the order was overturned by state lawmakers, Bachmann seized on it as a way to attack him as both jockeyed for the party’s 2012 presidential nomination.

“To have innocent little 12-year-old girls be forced to have a government injection through an executive order is just flat-out wrong,” Bachmann said during a GOP debate that September.

Bachmann, who was serving in Congress at the time, doubled down on that disinformation in a follow-up interview, claiming that a woman told her that her daughter had suffered adverse effects from the vaccine (and using a slur against mental illness in the process).

That year, NPR reported that 35 deaths had been listed out of 35 million youths who had received HPV vaccines. But no pattern was found to suggest the vaccine caused the deaths. Rare neurological disorders, heart conditions, diabetes and illicit drug use were among the causes.

“We have not identified a significant likelihood of serious adverse events following vaccine,” Dr. Joseph Bocchini of the Centers for Disease Control’s working group on HPV vaccines said. “This is a very safe vaccine.”

The American Association of Pediatrics responded to Bachmann, though not by name, in a statement saying:

The American Academy of Pediatrics, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the American Academy of Family Physicians all recommend that girls receive HPV vaccine around age 11 or 12. That’s because this is the age at which the vaccine produces the best immune response in the body, and because it’s important to protect girls well before the onset of sexual activity. In the U.S., about 6 million people, including teens, become infected with HPV each year, and 4,000 women die from cervical cancer. This is a life-saving vaccine that can protect girls from cervical cancer.

But pediatric doctors like Kenneth Alexander of the University of Chicago Medical Center worried that despite being debunked, Bachmann’s lie would spread.

“There are people out there who, because of this kind of misinformation, aren’t going to get their daughter immunized,” he told Reuters at the time. “As a result, there will be more people who die from cervical cancer.”

An angry reader comment submitted to Forbes less than a year later demonstrated Alexander’s point:

Gardasil has killed 110, injured 25,183 and the numbers are climbing. Everyone should have a choice this is AMERICA and you are the problem, speaking of mandatory vaccination. God help you if you or your child is injured or killed from one.

This message was one iteration of a claim that circulated around social media, using a disingenuous reading of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS for short.)

Between 2008 and 2013, “adverse reactions” were reported in around 21,000 women who received HPV vaccines. However, most of those reports were for mild conditions like dizziness, nausea and inflammation at the site of the shot. In 2013, about 7.4 percent of the cases were for more serious conditions like headache, nausea, vomiting, fatigue, dizziness, syncope and general weakness.

But as Forbes medical writer Matthew Herper observed:

On the scale of this data, there’s just not any evidence of harm. People who say that Gardasil has killed a hundred people and hurt tens of thousands are repeating a misuse of data to generate fear. And their message is spin, not fact.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) further determined in 2013 that the two vaccines were safe for use.

As so often happens, however, this type of disinformation was recycled and repurposed to undermine progress against COVID-19 vaccines; as NPR reported in June 2021:

Graphics from anti-vaccine proponents frequently tick off the number of deaths directly reported in VAERS — without noting the reports there have not been investigated or verified as causally linked to an immunization. Those numbers even made it onto the show of Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson last month. In a segment on the supposed dangers of COVID-19 vaccines, Carlson incorrectly claimed the system had recorded thousands of unexplained deaths. “It’s clear that what is happening now is not even close to normal,” he told his audience.

The problem, says Saad Omer, director of the Yale Institute for Global Health, is that many of those deaths in the VAERS database were caused by other illnesses that happened around the same time as the immunization and had nothing to do with a vaccine: “Vaccines decrease your risk of COVID-19,” Omer notes. “They don’t make you immortal.”

As Science magazine noted, Carlson refused to mention in his attack that the VAERS data had not been vetted, or that 80 percent of the 4000 or so deaths listed after receiving COVID vaccines were among patients who were 60 years of age or older.

Update 08/24/2021, 9:53pm: This article has been revamped and updated. You can review the original here.