Did Gardasil kill Colton Berrett? The answer is almost certainly no.

I’ve written about the vaccine against the human papilloma virus (HPV) on many occasions, possibly almost as many times as I’ve written about the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine. The reason is obvious. For some reason, the antivaccine movement harbors an unusually high degree of hostility for and fear of HPV vaccines Gardasil and Cervarix even for antivaxers. Strike that. The reason is not that mysterious. Gardasil protects prevents cervical cancer by protecting against HPV, which is primarily a sexually transmitted disease. It is recommended for preteen girls—and, more recently, boys—to ensure that they are protected before they become sexually active, although many who receive it are teens. Basically, yes, it’s primarily about sex, which is why one of the most persistent bits of antivaccine fear mongering about Gardasil is that it causes premature ovarian failure and infertility. It doesn’t.

Perhaps the most pernicious and despicable bit of antivaccine fear mongering is the claim that Gardasil doesn’t just cause premature ovarian failure but rather that it kills teens. I’ve discussed with a number of these cases over the years. Suffice to say that, when critically examined, the evidence for a link between Gardasil and and the deaths attributed to the vaccine is almost always incredibly thin and unconvincing, although that doesn’t stop our old antivaccine “friend” Christopher Shaw from having tried to convince New Zealand health authorities that HPV vaccination does cause sudden death. Unfortunately, sometimes credulous journalists pick pick up on the “HPV=DEATH!” fear mongering to publish truly irresponsible articles. The cases used are tragic, and the stories told heart-breaking. No person with an ounce of compassion can read any of them without feeling his heart break for the pain the child who became ill and died suffered and the grief of her family. One can even understand how the parents might come to blame Gardasil, even on the most tenuous of correlation. Discussing such stories requires care and tact, because inevitably any skeptical look at the narrative being promoted by the antivaccine movement will be portrayed as an attack on the dead child and his grieving family.

Unfortunately, there’s another one of these stories making the rounds. I stayed away as long as I could, but I kept seeing more and more posts on antivaccine websites, blogs, and Facebook pages that I finally couldn’t ignore it any more. I’m referring to the tragic case of a young man named Colton Berrett, who has been portrayed as “another teen sacrificed by the HPV vaccine.” Basically, Berrett was an 17-year-old who suffered from transverse myelitis, which his mother blamed on his receiving Gardasil. As you will see, as is usual with tragic cases like that of Colton Berrett, the story does not even provide a strong suggestion that Gardasil caused this unfortunate young man’s health problems and ultimate death.

None of this stops Melissa Curtin of Stop Mandatory Vaccination from outrage at the death as having definitely been due to Gardasil:

Deep tidal waves of sadness and devastation shook a community of parents, caregivers, family and friends of vaccine injured and deceased children to its core — after learning about the death of Colton Berrett on January 5th, 2018, in Utah. Heartbreaking, heart-shattering, devastating, horrific, crushing – and most importantly, unnecessary. Another tragic death of a child damaged by and caused from vaccines, and in this case, it was the Gardasil/Human Papilloma Virus Vaccine (HPV) that took his life. Colton is one of thousands of severely vaccine injured children who ultimately lost his life and succumbed to the toxic travesty of vaccine injury and damage. He courageously battled for his survival. May he rest in peace and his story be shared widely. May his family be surrounded by love, community, and find peace in their hearts through this difficult time.

Colton was a vibrant, healthy, lively, intelligent, happy, positive, athletic, thrill-seeking boy with unbridled potential and a bright future. Only his future and life was robbed not just from him, but also from his loving family, his mother, father, and two siblings, from everyone that met him, and the larger community and world that will never have the opportunity to meet this adventurous, courageous, young man.

I have no doubt that Colton was likely as described. I have no doubt that his family is grieving and suffering. I have no doubt that, before his death, Colton suffered. However, I have many doubts about the claims being made that Gardasil caused his illness and demise, for reasons that I will explain.

It doesn’t help that it was Polly Tommey and the VAXXED crew who first publicized his story in the antivaccine underground:

Whenever I see anyone who had anything to do with the antivaccine propaganda
“documentary” VAXXED
, which was produced by Del Bigtree and directed by Andrew Wakefield, I see many red flags. After all, since the release of the movie in 2016, the VAXXED crew has been cruising the country, collecting stories like that of Colton that they can use in a followup movie, harassing scientists, and trying to influence legislators to pass laws favorable to their antivaccine agenda. In other words, not only is the VAXXED crew not objective, its members are the farthest from objective that you can imagine. They are die-hard ideologues who believe, against all evidence otherwise, that vaccines cause serious harm. Anything posted by VAXXED is to be viewed with extreme skepticism.

The video and his mother’s account above agree here:

A medical physical was required for Colton to attend a scout camp. This was prior to his 8th grade school year. His pediatrician and long-time family doctor recommended the HPV Vaccine to his mother, Kathleen. His doctor claimed the HPV Vaccine could help prevent cancer, and even if Colton was not promiscuous, he could give the virus to his future wife. Like many parents, Kathleen trusted her doctor. She confidently shared, “The doctor is the one who went to school, and of course you’re going to do what he recommends.”

So Colton got the Gardasil series. Because this was four years ago, he got the old three shot series, where the doses are administered at 0, 1-2, and 6 months. (Note that this was the old schedule. The CDC now recommends a two dose schedule for children under 15, with doses at 0 and 6-12 months.)

Colton received the first two doses of Gardasil without any reported problems. In the video above, his mother doesn’t mention any issue until the third dose, nor does any account that I’ve been able to find. Consequently, for six months and two doses, Colton was fine. Then this happened:

Colton was administered the third round of the Gardasil/ HPV Vaccine on February 1, 2014, about a month and a half just shy of his 14th birthday. About two weeks after, he experienced a painful neck ache following the vaccine and was given Tylenol to alleviate the pain. Adventurous by nature, the next day, Colton and his dad went motor-cross riding to use Colton’s new bike. That day when he arrived home, he became pale, started to feel nauseous, and was not well that evening – he headed to bed. Kathleen continued to check on him throughout the night and Colton expressed he could not use his right arm. Intuitively, Kathleen worried if he had spinal meningitis and if her son was going paralyzed. A mother’s or any concerned parent’s nightmare.

Colton’s dad brought Colton to urgent care at Primary Children’s Hospital in Salt Lake City the next morning, on Monday, February 17, 2014. Colton was almost completely paralyzed and that was the beginning of his 88 day hospital stay. Doctors and staff discovered through speaking with Colton’s parents that he was healthy, active, and not sick, until he received the HPV Vaccine two weeks earlier and experienced the neck ache. It was agreed that Colton suffered a severe adverse reaction and vaccine injury to the Gardasil vaccine. The doctors reported his vaccine injury to the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS).

So, basically, Colton had no problems at all until two weeks after the third dose of Gardasil. What I find odd is the account that the doctors were so quick to say that they were going to report Colton’s case to the Vaccine Adverse Events Reporting System (VAERS), particularly after the third dose. Be that as it may, this is what happened next:

Colton was originally diagnosed with Acute Longitudinal Transverse Myelitis; C1 through T-12 were affected (Cervical-1, through Thoracic-12). The inflammation in his spinal cord caused the paralysis which started in his neck and full right arm. His left arm was starting to lose function and become paralyzed. Colton was also having difficulty breathing, so intubation and a ventilator were needed. Paralysis continued spreading throughout his body and it was not too long before Colton lost his speech ability. Able only to communicate using the “thumbs up or thumbs down” method, that was soon halted due to loss of movement in his thumbs. Colton’s new reality included daily therapy to avoid infection and pneumonia, irregular temperature regulation, hot/cold packs for the spikes and drops in temperature, being uncomfortable with a cervical collar, and all this with a 15 pound ventilator/breathing machine. His family referred to this as his “ball and chain.”

Acute longitudinal transverse myelitis is a condition that involves inflammation of the spinal cord, in Colton’s case, C1-T12, which is a huge stretch of spinal cord. Here is a schematic of the spinal cord below that shows what a large portion of the spinal cord that was involved:

Spinal cord

Spinal cord

There are a number of suspected causes of ALTM. The National Institute of Neurologic Disorders and Stroke notes that the cause of ALTM is unknown in most cases, but that the discovery of circulating antibodies to the proteins aquaporin-4 and anti-myelin oligodendrocyte point to a definite cause in some individuals with transverse myelitis. Aquaporin-4 is a key protein that carries water through the cell membrane of neural cells. The myelin oligodendrocyte glycoprotein sits on the outer layer of myelin. Basically, the NINDS notes that the following conditions predispose to ATLM:

  • Immune system disorders
  • Viral infections. Associated viruses include herpes viruses such as varicella zoster (the virus that causes chickenpox and shingles), herpes simplex, cytomegalovirus, and Epstein-Barr; flaviviruses such as West Nile and Zika; influenza, echovirus, hepatitis B, mumps, pertussis, tetanus, diphtheria, measles, and rubella.
  • Bacterial infections such as syphilis, tuberculosis, actinomyces and Lyme disease. Bacterial skin infections, middle-ear infections, campylobacter jejuni gastroenteritis, and mycoplasma bacterial pneumonia have also been associated with the condition.
  • Fungal infections in the spinal cord, including Aspergillus, Blastomyces, Coccidioides, and Cryptococcus.
  • Parasites, including Toxoplasmosis, Cysticercosis, Shistosomiasis, and Angtiostrongyloides.
  • Other inflammatory disorders that can affect the spinal cord, such as sarcoidosis, systemic lupus erythematosus, Sjogren’s syndrome, mixed connective tissue disease, scleroderma, and Bechet’s syndrome.
  • Vascular disorders such as arteriovenous malformation, dural arterial-venous fistula, intra spinal cavernous malformations, or disk embolism.

Transverse myelitis can also be the first symptom of an autoimmune disease, such as multiple sclerosis or neuromyelitis optica.

The disease is treated by a number of modalities, depending on what is thought to be the etiology. These modalities can include steroids, plasma exchange, intravenous immunoglobulin, antiviral medications, and other medications to treat symptoms. Most people with transverse myelitis have at least partial recovery, with most recovery occurring within three months after symptoms arise, although in some patients recovery might take two years. However, if there is no improvement within three to six months complete recovery is very unlikely, and rapid onset of symptoms (as happened with Colton) generally results in poorer recovery.

According to the account, Colton had to be intubated, and you can see that he still has a tracheostomy tube and is using a portable ventilator, which he and his parents call his “ball and chain.” He was quadriplegic for a month and a half, and he was unable to communicate for a time other than with his eyebrows and facial expressions. As of the time this video was recorded, his right arm remained paralyzed, and he had little use of his left arm. He has, however, regained his core strength and the use of his legs, after a couple of years of physical therapy. Overall, one can’t help but feel empathy for what this young man has gone through and for what he has continued to go through.

But did Gardasil cause Colton’s ALTM? It’s highly unlikely. For one thing, evidence does not support a link. A recent study of 64 million doses of vaccines found no association between transverse myelitis and prior immunization. Another explanation for why comes courtesy of someone who knows a lot more about the disease than I do and occurs in the comments after this Facebook post:

This post was made in response to a blog post by James Lyon Weiler, Who and What Killed Colton Berrett?, where he charges:

The vaccine changed the life of his family forever – and now, Colton is gone – forever.

I’m a scientist focused on root causes. It is no mystery to me what – and who – killed Colton Berrett.

Selfishness killed Colton Berrett.

Profit killed Colton Berrett.

Vaccine Risk Denialism killed Colton Berrett.

Direct-to-Consumer Marketing killed Colton Berrett.

The FCC killed Colton Berrett.

Pharma Ads in Newspapers killed Colton Berrett.

The Media killed Colton Berrett.

Political donations to campaigns from Vaccine Makers killed Colton Berrett.

Dorit Rubinstein Reiss killed Colton Berrett.

Paul Offit killed Colton Berrett.

Peter Hotez killed Colton Berrett.

Lee Harrison killed Colton Berrett.

Julie Gerberding killed Colton Berrett.

Thomas Frieden killed Colton Berrett.

State Senator Richard Pan killed Colton Berrett.

Coleen Boyle killed Colton Berrett.

Frank Destefano killed Colton Berrett.

Scientific Fraud killed Colton Berrett.

Medical Malfeasance killed Colton Berrett.

ACIP killed Colton Berrett.

CDC killed Colton Berrett.

Merck killed Colton Berrett.

Congress killed Colton Berrett.

The National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act (NCVIA) of 1986 killed Colton Berrett.

FASCISM killed Colton Berrett.

Because of course it did.

In the comments, it’s pointed out that the family’s contemporaneous accounts of Colton’s illness make no mention of vaccines:

We see this sort of thing so often, and it’s so depressing. Basically, it appears that the idea that Gardasil caused Colton’s problems, like the idea that vaccines cause a child’s autism, came later, as the parents looked for explanations and encountered the cranks. In fairness, it’s unclear who wrote the post above, and the parents might not have told others of their suspicions yet, but certainly it seems odd that there is no mention here.

Later in the thread, a scientist further explains why it’s incredibly unlikely that Gardasil caused Colton’s transverse myelitis:

Parts are worth citing in detail:

Based on the statement by Colton’s mother in a Vaxxed video, Colton first developed symptoms two weeks after the vaccination. Transverse myelitis is marked by an extremely fast, fulminant course. It is very surprising for it to arise two weeks after the alleged inciting event. We know a lot about TM from EAE, an experimental/research procedure in which autoimmune encephalitis/myelitis is induced by coupling a myelin protein, such as MOG, with a strong adjuvant – usually Complete Freund’s Adjuvant, sometimes even with the addition of pertussis toxin. Complete Freund’s Adjuvant is an extremely strong adjuvant, so strong that in fact it is often replaced with squalene or AlOH because it is so unpleasant to the animal itself (it’s never used in humans). It makes no logical sense for the HPV vaccine, which does not penetrate the blood/brain barrier, even in the presence of the AlOH adjuvant (like MOG, it’s too big – in EAE, pertussis toxin is used to allow penetration). It makes no sense for the original inflammatory insult and the onset of TM to take so long. And, finally, demyelinating events in HPV are incredibly rare

And:

Having had an encounter with TM before, I am personally deeply sorry for Colton and his family. At the same time, I can’t find much data that in any sense supports the claim that his illness was caused by the HPV vaccine. Personally, I’m also a little dubious as to the ethics of Vaxxed using this young man, who has clearly been through an extremely traumatic and life-changing experience that has deprived him of his very identity as, basically, a prop, with the parents’ agreement. There are repeated assertions that Colton wanted to make the statements that he did, but this is an ethically complex situation. Colton is in a profound sense dependent on his parents, so he might be susceptible to manipulation and coercion to say the message his mother and/or the Vaxxed activitsts want him to say. Whether this was indeed the case or not, the ethics of burdening a young man in his complex situation with the burden of activism and a very complex message that he himself might not have the qualifications to comprehensively understand (despite his subjective situation, being a bird does not make one an ornithologist and being an alleged vaccine victim does not make one fit to judge often complex scientific evidence proving vaccines are safe). Life is short, fragile and infinitely precious.

On those words, I come to the sad end of Colton’s tale. On January 5, Colton died:

If you watch this video, at around the 1:14 hr mark, a statement from Colton’s mother is read that reveals that Colton took his own life:

The story of Colton Berrett is one of the most tragic stories that I have ever encountered, and, remember, I have blogged about several of the children with incurable cancer treated by cancer quack Stanislaw Burzynski. A highly active and happy child, he was unfortunate enough to develop a horrific disease that robbed him of much of his ability to do what he loved the most and rendered him completely dependent upon others for many of his basic activities. He faced a lifetime ahead of him in which he was unlikely ever to get significantly better or recover much more function than he had already recovered. What makes the tragedy so much worse is how the antivacine vultures responsible for VAXXED have swarmed around the family since discovering his case, encouraging his mother to buy into the false notion that Gardasil injured her son to the point where he was so damaged that he took his own life and blaming Gardasil for his suffering and death. Their behavior, their exploitation of Colton and his family, is beyond despicable.