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Column critical of vaccine for teen HPV stirs outrage

A column in a popular local monthly magazine that criticized vaccinating teenagers against the human papilloma virus has outraged area pediatricians and spurred Erie County’s health commissioner to issue a statement defending the vaccinations as safe and effective in preventing the sexually transmitted infection.

The column appeared in the April edition of Western New York Family magazine, a free publication available in the waiting rooms of many area doctors’ offices.

Local writer and radio talk show host Linda O’Connor cited several anecdotal examples of teenage girls who suffered serious physical ailments after receiving Gardasil, one of two vaccines licensed by the Food and Drug Administration to prevent HPV, a virus that causes cervical, anal and throat cancer, as well as genital warts.

O’Connor also wrote that more than 100 healthy girls “have died from the vaccine” since 2006, although she did not indicate a source for the statistic.

Several pediatricians complained to Western New Family magazine founder, editor and publisher Michele Miller, saying the article erroneously portrays the HPV vaccine as dangerous.

Miller told The Buffalo News that O’Connor’s assertion that more than 100 healthy girls died from the vaccine was incorrect, “and should have been caught and wasn’t.”

Dr. Gale Burstein, county health commissioner, issued a news release this week urging parents to have their children vaccinated at age 11 or 12 to protect against HPV and a variety of cancers.

“This is very damaging,” said Burstein, a board-certified adolescent pediatrician. “This is really undermining our efforts with untrue information and misleading people.”

O’Connor also wrote that the vaccine resulted in serious side effects for more than 24,000 patients.

The Journal of the American Medical Association reported in 2009 that Gardasil had 12,424 reports of adverse events to the CDC’s Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System between 2006 and 2008, when 23 million doses of the vaccine were administered.

Of those, 772 cases were regarded as serious, and there were 32 reported deaths, but JAMA found “no common pattern to the deaths that would suggest they were caused by the vaccine.”

The rates of fainting and blood clots were considered disproportionately high, although they could not be pegged to the vaccine itself either, the JAMA study found.

Some health providers have threatened to pull advertising from the magazine because of the article.

O’Connor’s examples included an unnamed girl who suffered insomnia and developed warts on her hands and legs following a Gardasil vaccine, and another unnamed girl who experienced two strokes and partial paralysis.

But Burstein said millions of doses of the vaccine have been administered with no ill effects, potentially preventing thousands of cancer deaths per year.

And, she added, in the cases mentioned by O’Connor, there’s no evidence to suggest the vaccine was the source of the maladies suffered by the girls.

“Sometimes two events coincide with each other,” said Burstein. “It doesn’t mean there’s a cause and effect relationship.”

O’Connor said in an interview that she stands by her story but regretted not citing her sources.

She said she obtained her statistics on Gardasil-related deaths from the National Vaccine Information Center website. The site maintains a searchable database of vaccines, based on raw data from the CDC reporting system that is current through mid-February of this year.

“I saw it as an informative article, an article that talked about a vaccine that was controversial,” said O’Connor. “I’m terribly surprised by the response, because I didn’t say anything in the article that hasn’t been said before.”

Miller defended the article, which she described as an opinion column by a writer who has a solid track record with Western New York Family magazine and has written for national publications.

“There’s no doubt about it, it’s her opinion. It’s her column, and basically, her column is her opinion,” said Miller.

Miller responded to the doctors who complained to her about the article and has offered them space for a rebuttal in the May issue of Western New York Family magazine, which has a circulation of about 25,000, she said.

O’Connor also offered a handful of pediatricians with whom she exchanged emails an opportunity to expound upon their views in an interview on her radio show.

“They all turned me down. If they had something to say, I’d like to hear it,” she said.