Media Coverage of HPV Vaccine Boosts Reports of Adverse Effects

Release Date: November 19, 2013 | By Milly Dawson, HBNS Contributing Writer
Research Source: Journal of Adolescent Health


  • The number of adverse events reported for the HPV vaccine Gardasil┬« correlated with an increase in the number of media stories about the vaccine.
  • The meningitis vaccine Menactra┬«, which is recommended for a similar demographic as Gardasil and has similar risks of severe side effects, had low media coverage and low rates of reported adverse events.
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The number of adverse events associated with the HPV vaccine reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) appeared to be related to media coverage and online controversy about the vaccine, finds a study in the Journal of Adolescent Health.

“Vaccines are being met with increased skepticism and criticism in society,” said the lead author Jan Eberth, PhD., an assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of South Carolina Arnold School of Public Health.

HPV vaccines prevent infection from certain types of human papillomavirus. A sexually transmitted virus, HPV increases the risk of cervical, oral, anal, vaginal and vulvar cancers in women and of oral, anal and penile cancers in men. The authors noted that because this vaccine concerns sexual activity in young people, public discussion of its use has often been heated. 

To determine if there was a connection between media coverage and reported vaccine side effects, the researchers compared the number of adverse effects reported for the HPV vaccine Gardasil® with the number of adverse events reported for Menactra®,  a vaccine used to prevent meningitis, a potentially deadly nervous system infection. Menactra is administered to a similar age group as Gardasil and was approved shortly before Gardasil.  

The authors compared the amount of print media coverage that the two vaccines received during two and a half years following their FDA approval. The researchers also examined the association between adverse effects reported for each of the two vaccines and the amount of online search activity related to them. 

During that time frame, the vaccine adverse event reporting system maintained by the CDC and FDA received a monthly average of 159 adverse reports for Gardasil versus 19 for Menactra.  Print media coverage was much heavier for Gardasil, spiking in month nine with 147 media reports. During the preceding 8 months, there was no significant difference in adverse event reports for Gardasil and Menactra.

Adverse event reporting for Gardasil increased nine months after approval. At that time, Texas governor Rick Perry issued an executive order that all girls older than age 11 be vaccinated, an order which the Texas legislature overturned.

The researchers found that the disproportionate number of Gardasil adverse events reported reflected the intense media attention which echoed after the Texas controversy moved online. Though the authors admit they cannot rule out an actual difference in the number of side effects experienced from the two vaccines, they note that the reported risk of serious adverse events for both Gardasil and Menactra were low (.8 percent vs. 1.0 percent).

The sheer volume of media coverage for the HPV vaccine versus the low coverage for the meningitis vaccine may have raised awareness of potential adverse events and the need to report them, said the authors. They suggest that public health communicators who explain vaccines need to pay closer attention to information spread in the media and online forums.

Jennifer Smith, MPH, Ph.D., associate professor of epidemiology at the University of North Carolina’s School of Public Health, said that public health leaders ought to proactively respond to incorrect media coverage.  “We need to be offensive rather than the defensive. We need to develop clear, data-based messages on vaccination and on vaccine safety that the public can easily understand to make informed decisions,” she said.

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For More Information:

Reach the Health Behavior News Service, part of the Center for Advancing Health, at (202) 387-2829 or [email protected].

Journal of Adolescent Health: Contact Tor Berg at (415) 502-1373 or [email protected] or visit

Tags for this article:
Immunizations/Vaccinations   Lifestyle and Prevention   Immunizations/Vaccinations   Patient Engagement   Get Preventive Health Care   Seek Knowledge about your Health   Children and Young People's Health   Teen Sexuality/Pregnancy/Contraception  

Comments on this article
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Twyla says
November 20, 2013 at 1:45 PM

Very odd article. Is the point supposed to be that the reports of serious harm from Gardasil and Cervarix are simply manufactured controversy, a result of media stories?

People who report adverse reactions to vaccines are constantly told, "Don't confuse correlation with causation!" This article reports a correlation between adverse reaction reports, Google searches, and media coverage. But what is causing what?

Some victims of Gardasil adverse effects had symptoms after the first two shots in the series (such as weakness, dizziness, pain, immune system disorders) but it did not occur to them to associate those symptoms with the shots until the third shot provoked a more serious reaction (e.g. disability, seizure disorder, paralysis, or death) at which point they (or their bereaved families) found via Google search that their symptoms were like other people have experienced post Gardasil.

Certainly it may not occur to someone to link symptoms and vaccines unless they have heard about other people's similar experiences.

When my daughter had a febrile seizure after receiving the MMR and varicela vaccine it did not even occur to me that there could be a link with the vaccines until years later when I read that vaccines can cause seizures.

In addition, many people have never heard of VAERS and, even if an obvious adverse reaction occurred, are not aware of reporting procedures.

So, yes, information can prompt considering a link, and reporting a problem. That information should be provided. That information does not create the adverse reaction. That information is not incorrect and does not need to be counteracted. That information is what should be provided by the doctor so that if escalating reactions are occurring the patient does not blindly continue with the series.

Information on possible adverse reactions should be available before the decision is made on whether to receive the vaccine, so that the risks and benefits can be accurately weighed.

So what is the problem? News reports may make consumers more aware of potential problems and more likely to report them?

Causation goes the other way too. When there are more adverse reactions, the media is more likely to report on them, and consumers are more likely to do Google searches looking for understanding, causation, and treatment options for their symptoms.

Fact is, teenagers have been receiving various vaccines for years without so many reports of serious adverse reactions as with Gardasil and Cervarix. And so many reports of fainting, which we are told is inconsequential and probably due to fear of needles. Nonsense.

Dani says
February 6, 2014 at 10:02 AM

Spot on Twyla. I could not have articulated a better response.

Eve says
February 11, 2014 at 10:19 AM

My daughter had all three shots. Since the final round she has experienced severe issues with cysts and increased pain with her cycle as well as a disruption in her cycle. I'm afraid this vaccine has been used as a tool to sterilize our children. I'm not a conspiracy nut, I'm a concerned parent.

Harrison Rose says
August 10, 2014 at 6:04 AM

The correlation between an increase in press and an increase in reporting is simply the cause and effect one expects from any form of advertising or marketing. An increase in press causes an increase in awareness this is why companies work and spend so much on public relations.

Using standard business analysis, it is obvious that the number of adverse reactions prior to the publicity must have been under reported because of ignorance of the reporting process. We certainly didn't know about it, or else we would have reported the trauma our daughter has and continues to experience. Batteries of tests have not identified any alternative source to her suffering.

What this means is that it is important for the independent press to pick up on this and get parents to be more aware of the possibility of side effects so we get adequate reporting.

If I had known the risks associated with this vaccine compared to the value proposition for what it is supposed to be preventing, I would never have allowed my daughter to have had it. The near term downside risk is way too high. And, as it turns out, my daughter drew the short straw!