NBC and the Cancer Vaccine that Isn't

Gardasil is a vaccine against a sexually transmitted disease, not against cancer – and its use on children raises serious concerns about parental rights and promiscuity.  The media should start getting the story right.

NBC's Nightly News February 5, 2007 story, which covered Texas Governor Rick Perry's mandate that all 6th grade girls be vaccinated with Gardasil, focused more on cancer than sex.  And that continues to be the mainstream media's spin, from outlets as disparate as The Washington Post to Good Housekeeping.

Even in the title of the story, “Cancer Vaccine Controversy,” NBC gets it wrong.  Gardasil is a vaccine for HPV, not cancer, though HPV is one of the leading causes of cervical cancer.   But NBC used the words “cancer” and “cervical cancer” six times in just under two minutes.  Conversely the words “sexually transmitted virus” and “promiscuity” were only used one time each.  

NBC dismissed the viewpoint of opponents of Perry's decision who believe mandating vaccination for HPV will lead to increased promiscuity.  People with concerns about morality were lumped in with other critics who claim Perry is in Merck's pocket because the company contributed to his election campaign.

No mention was made in NBC's story that the AmericanCollege of Pediatricians has roundly condemned requiring the vaccine as a condition of school attendance.   

According to the ACP: “HPV is spread only by intercourse. Keeping children out of school because they have not been vaccinated with the HPV vaccine is a serious, precedent-setting action. It replaces parental medical decision-making with government regulation which should be reserved for the improvement of the general public health.  HPV cannot innocently be “caught” in a classroom as measles or other vaccine preventable diseases can.”

No, NBC's focus was solely on the cancer connection, and they played it big.  Here's how the story wrapped up, leaving the viewer with the feeling that HPV is a cure for cancer:

 Reporter: “But while many parents here in Texas are angered given the governor's decision, some experts say the HPV vaccine should be mandatory in every state.

NYUMedicalSchool representative: “It is a very exciting chance for to us be -- to prevent cancer, primarily by stopping it before it even starts.”

Reporter: “And the governor is standing by his decision in a statement today saying, 'Never before have we had an opportunity to prevent cancer with a simple vaccine.' This Texas parent agrees.”

Father: “If it is going to save my daughters from cancer, to me it is a no-brainer.”  

To NBC it's all about cancer. It's not about sex.

Kristen Fyfe is senior writer at the Media Research Center's Culture and Media Institute, www.cultureandmediainstitute.org.