“Vaccine Risk” Put in Perspective

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Image: NIH Laboratory of Tumor Virus BiologyImage: NIH Laboratory of Tumor Virus Biology

Image: NIH Laboratory of Tumor Virus Biology via Wikimedia Commons

In honor of what appears to be Vaccine Appreciation Week around here, I found this excellent graphic about the relative risks of the HPV vaccine at the Information is Beautiful blog. HPV stands for human papillomavirus. Though not nearly as deadly as influenza, it is more common, infecting as many as 50% of sexually active Americans (Centers for Disease Control). It is effectively a sexually transmitted disease that is spread by genital contact. More than 90% of those infected never show any symptoms and may not even know they carrying (or spreading) the virus. The biggest risk from the virus is cervical cancer which is diagnosed in about 11,00o women in the US every year.

The vaccine targets the type of HPV that causes up to 70% of those cancers (CDC) and is typically given to teenage girls. Despite some attention-grabbing, fear-mongering headlines, the vaccine is also entirely safe and this graphic does a nice job of showing just how safe it is.

Notice that after more than 20 million doses were administered, 20 people died within a year of vaccination. Keep in mind that when drugs are tested in clinical trials, any adverse reactions have to be reported. That means that if you get a shot, walk out of your doctor’s office and get hit by a bus, that gets reported as an adverse reaction.

It’s likely that many, if not all, of those 20 people died of something completely unrelated to the vaccine. In fact, if you followed any random group of 20 million people over a year, it would be surprising if at least 20 of them did not die. Plus, even if every single one of those 20 people died as a direct result of the vaccine, based on these numbers, you are still almost 300 times more likely to die of cervical cancer than to die from the HPV vaccine. This is the calculation that the anti-vaccine groups seem to have trouble with: you can’t call a treatment unsafe when the disease it targets is orders of magnitude more likely to kill you.

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