Death by Gardasil? Not so fast… (2018 edition)

I’ve been writing about antivaccine pseudoscience for a long time now, both here and elsewhere. Indeed, I was thinking about this the other day and realized that I made my first big splash countering antivaccine misinformation around 13 years ago, and that I had spent about five years before that sparring with antivaxers on Usenet. In that time, I’ve seen all manner of pseudoscience, misinformation, and outright lies about vaccines, including claims that vaccines cause autism and neurodevelopmental disorders, autoimmune disease, diabetes, sudden infant death syndrome, and more. I’ve even seen claims that “shaken baby syndrome” (now known as abusive head trauma) is actually a misdiagnosis for vaccine injury, with antivaxers going so far as to defend child killers by claiming that it was vaccines that killed the baby, not the child abuser. As a result, there is little that antivaxers say that surprises me much anymore.

Unfortunately, included in this lack of surprise is a common claim made about vaccines against the human papillomavirus (HPV), in particular against Gardasil, which are designed to prevent cervical cancer by preventing the most common types of HPV that cause cervical cancer. (Why I don’t see nearly as much fear mongering about the other major HPV vaccine, Cervarix, I don’t know.) For some reason, the antivaccine movement harbors an unusually high degree of hostility for and fear of Gardasil, even though it is intended to prevent a potentially deadly cancer. It’s crazy even by antivaxer standards.

Strike that. The reason is not that mysterious. HPV, several types of which cause cervical cancer, is primarily a sexually transmitted disease. In order to maximize protection, HPV vaccination 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 https://respectfulinsolence.com/2012/10/30/ovarian-failure-caused-by-gardasil-not-so-fast/ and infertility. It doesn’t.

One of the more extreme claims about Gardasil and Cervarix that makes the rounds from time to time is that the vaccine is killing prepubscent girls. I’ve discussed a number of these cases over the years, both here and elsewhere. Suffice to say, when these cases are critically evaluated, the evidence for a link between Gardasil and the deaths attributed to the vaccine is almost always incredibly thin and unconvincing. One example is Annabelle Morin, whose mother Linda Morin blames Gardasil for her daughter’s death, even though it almost certainly did not. Another example is Jasmine Renata, whose death at a young age was cynically exploited by antivaxers. It even attracted our old antivaccine “friend,” scientist Christopher Shaw, to the proceedings, where he tried to convince New Zealand health authorities that HPV vaccination can cause sudden death and that it caused Renata’s death. The most recent case I discussed was that of Colton Berrett, an active, happy 13 year old boy who received the old three shot series of Gardasil and, two weeks after his third dose, developed symptoms of transverse myelitis, an autoimmune disease that affects the spinal cord. It left him dependent on a ventilator, with one arm completely paralyzed and the other greatly weakened. Four years later, he committed suicide. His case has since been used to promote the idea that “Gardasil kills.”

The cases exploited by antivaxers 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, they’ve been at it again; so once more I feel obligated to look into some of stories being exploited to spread fear, uncertainty, and doubt about vaccines. All are horrible cases. None, however, are evidence that Gardasil kills, no matter how much antivaxers try to spin them otherwise.

Jasmin Soriat: Death by Gardasil?

Last fall, the UK Association of HPV Vaccine Injured Daughters (AHVID) and SaneVax released a multipart YouTube documentary entitled Sacrificial Virgins. I discussed it once before, but at the time I didn’t really know the details or who the young woman was whose death was blamed on Gardasil. Now I do. Here’s part I:

Before I discuss the death in the film attributed to Gardasil, I can’t resist commenting on the title of the propaganda video: Sacrificial Virgins. Of course, the imagery in the title is not about a loss of innocence, but a sacrifice of innocence, an image that resonates deeply in human myth, history, religion, and literature. The next question becomes: Sacrifice to what? In general, the implication of human sacrifice, particularly virgin sacrifice, is of ancient, pagan religion, and that’s clearly the imagery the video makers went for here. The implication is that vaccination for HPV is based not on science, but rather on some form of irrational, religious belief system that demands a virgin sacrifice. No one ever accused antivaxers of being subtle.

In the film, Christian Fiala, who, not surprisingly, is an HIV/AIDS denialist and a Board member of the HIV/AIDS denialist group Rethinking AIDS, claims to have identified a 19-year-old woman whose death was caused by HPV vaccination, one of the “virgin sacrifices.” Co-producer of the film, Joan Shenton, also an HIV/AIDS denialist and someone who apparently discovered antivaccine pseudoscience later in life, interviews the pathologist who did the autopsy on the young woman, Prof. Dr. Johan Missliwetz. In the interview, he pointed out that his first autopsy left him unable to find a cause of death, leading him to suspect a genetic heart defect, which is, of course, one of the most common causes of unexplained deaths in young adults. Previous interviews by him don’t really show him saying vaccinations caused the woman’s death. However, in this interview, he claims that his other thought about the cause of death, besides the genetic heart defect, was HPV vaccination, even though it was three weeks after the woman’s second dose of HPV vaccine.

When I first encountered that YouTube video, I could not find out who this unfortunate young woman was. Subsequently, I’ve learned that her name was Jasmin Soriat. Her death was described in—surprise! surprise!—The Daily Mail:

A teenage girl died in her sleep weeks after being given the controversial human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine, a new documentary has claimed.

Jasmin Soriat, 19, a student from Vienna, suffered neurological symptoms after having a second dose of the injection and suffered respiratory failure three weeks later.

A pathologist who examined her body has said the vaccine could have been the cause of her death.

Jasmin’s story is one of ‘hundreds of documented deaths following the HPV vaccine’ according to claims in a new three-part documentary, titled Sacrificial Virgins.

And:

Government forensic pathologist Dr Johan Missliwetz was ordered by a court to do a second autopsy on Miss Soriat as the first could not establish the cause of death.

He concluded that the vaccine could have been the cause of her demise.
The doctor, who has now taken early retirement, said: ‘I couldn’t find a reasonable cause of death but had two suspicions. One is a genetic disorder of the heart and the other one, it had to do with vaccination.’

If you examine stories like that of Jasmine Soriat, you’ll find that there are many commonalities. First and foremost, the temporal association between HPV vaccination and death is tenuous at best. In this case, Soriat had the first shot in the series and didn’t have any problems until weeks after her second shot. (The story I will conclude this post with demonstrates an even less convincing association.) If you want to see how tenuous the association between Gardasil and Jasmine Soriat’s death is, take a look at a more contemporaneous account of her death in 2007:

Less that one month after her last Gardasil injection, Jasmin’s friend discovered her body. She had evidently died in her sleep, succumbing to respiratory paralysis.

Jasmin was fit, happy and fun-loving. She had never experienced any serious illnesses, had no lung disease, and had never smoked. She also had no previous problems after any of her normal vaccinations.

Searching for answers, her parents meticulously reconstructed her final hours of life. According to their investigations, “She was at a concert, a Spanish band. Before midnight, she was at a fast food restaurant. She then drove with her flatmate home, via taxi to Dobling. At approximately two o’clock in the morning, she drank som [sic] tea.”

The next morning, her girlfriend came by to check up on her, but Jasmin, according to her friend, “must have died a few hours earlier in her sleep.”

As I’ve discussed before, there was no evidence linking Gardasil to Ms. Soriat’s death, other than a very tenuous temporal link. Far more likely is a genetic disorder of the conduction system of the heart, which can manifest itself as sudden cardiac death and show no anatomic abnormality on autopsy.

Common themes in “death by Gardasil” stories

After you’ve examined a few of them, you’ll rapidly find two main themes among the stories of “death by Gardasil” circulated in the antivaccine underground that make them unconvincing evidence for vaccine injury. First, the temporal link between Gardasil and death is almost always extremely tenuous, often with the patient having received at least one or two shots in the series with no ill effects and the ill effects only arising weeks or months after the shot on which parents place the blame for their child’s illness.

As a typical example, let’s take a look at the case of Christina Tarsell:

Between her junior and senior years, Chris had a summer job working at the college art museum while living with classmates in a house in Tivoli, NY. So after a short visit home to Maryland, Chris returned to Bard and her job on June 13, 2008. During the visit home, on June 3rd, Chris had gotten her third shot of Gardasil.

A few days later, Chris complained of feeling dizzy, tired and she developed a rash on her neck. She had a post-vaccine cough and sinus congestion that wouldn’t go away. We were never told of any side effects to Gardasil so we did not know these signs were significant. Chris was found dead in her bed 18 days after her third shot. What could have happened? Chris was always a healthy, wholesome girl, a non-smoker, an athlete. She didn’t take drugs or medication.

As of this writing, the cause is “undetermined”. Further investigation suggests that Chris, like other girls who died following Gardasil, may have had an autoimmune related response triggered by the vaccine. The CDC wants you to dismiss them as “coincidences,” while our beautiful, innocent daughters die needlessly.

This story has both of the elements that I discuss. The temporal relationship between vaccination and death is questionable, and she had had two shots before the third shot blamed for her death. She developed an unknown illness and died suddenly. Her parents did further “investigation” and concluded that it must have been the Gardasil.

Some stories don’t even tell the interval between vaccination and death. For instance, there’s the case of Megan Hild, who died at age 20 after a mysterious illness. The most detailed account I could find (which was not very detailed at all) only said that when “she started having severe bouts of fatigue, after her first two Gardasil shots, we thought it was due to her schedule” and that “she began to have a multitude of health problems, including terrible headaches and severe stomach pains.” Ultimately, she was found dead.

The same is true for stories being promoted by the antivaccine movement in which the teen doesn’t die but does become seriously ill. For example, another prominent story featured in Sacrificial Virgins is that of Chloe Brookes-Holder, who is currently 18 and has suffered from a variety of debilitating diseases for several years. Her story was featured in the British tabloid press last year:

Chloe says she was a normal 12-year-old who danced six days a week and dreamed of a career on stage when she had the jab at school.

But in the months that followed the healthy teenager fell ill with dizziness, headaches, fatigue and bone and joint pain, and her muscles weakened.

She has since lost three stone – dropping from 8st 2oz to just 5st – has lost all feeling in her legs and is fed through a tube.

Photos show the teenager’s emaciated body, hooked up to wires and drips, as she lies in hospital, where she has spent most of the last 12 months.

Devastatingly, the pretty teenager has been told she may never walk again – let alone waltz about a dance floor – because she still has no feeling in her lower body.

Her mum Sophie Brookes, 41, has even been forced to give up work as a hairdresser and is now her full-time carer.

As is often the case, I had to do a fair amount of reading before I found what I was looking for: The time interval between vaccination with, in this case, Cervarix and the onset of symptoms. It was in the news story near the bottom, but it’s nowhere to be found in a number of other articles on antivaccine websites about her:

Between the second and third jabs, she fell ill with a string of viruses, started experiencing debilitating muscle pain and was diagnosed with fibromyalgia.

A gastrointestinal disorder left her in agony every time she ate, she lost control of her bladder and was later diagnosed with POTS, which causes abnormal heart rate.

A year after having the injection, Chloe says also began experiencing paralytic episodes and collapsing at school, unable to control her lower body.

So there it is again: A mysterious set of illnesses that showed up between the second and third shot and slowly worsened, with no indication of how soon after the second shot it occurred. Again, as is the case with the “death by Gardasil stories,” the temporal link is unclear and very tenuous at best. Yet the family is convinced that it had to be the vaccine that caused Chloe’s problems. Of course, one wonders when they became convinced that it had to have been the vaccine, given that the first symptoms appeared sometime between the second and third shot of Cervarix and they still went ahead and gave her the third shot.

Antivaxers exploit the deaths of children and teens to promote their dangerous message

I’m in no way downplaying the tragedy the families of these girls and young women have endured or the grief and anguish they have experienced over the deaths of their daughters and, in other cases, the serious illnesses their daughters have suffered. After all, no parent expects to outlive her daughter, and sudden, unexplained deaths of people under 21 are an anomaly. We humans are also pattern-forming creatures; it’s hard-wired into our brains that, when something happens, particularly something that provokes such a strong emotional response in us like the death of a child, there must be a reason. If there is no good explanation available, the very human response to tragedy is to look desperately for one and to latch onto it when we think we’ve found one. For instance, Ms. Hild’s mother summed up exactly the sort of thinking that leads parents suffering the death of a child to come to erroneous conclusions about what caused that death:

On her death certificate it will read, Cause of death unknown. She’s my daughter and I loved her!!!! I will never see her graduate college. I will never see her wear a wedding dress and hold her babies in her arms.

The one thing in common among all the girls and women whom I’ve just discussed that I have featured is that the actual cause of death is unknown. How can that be? How can these healthy, active young women for no apparent reason just die? That does not make any logical sense to me. There has to be a reason because things like this just do not happen, period.

Unfortunately, things like this most definitely can and do happen. We humans are simply unable to accept that, which leads to parents in mourning blaming vaccines for the deaths of their children.

These stories of young people who died are tragic, particularly that of Colton Berrett are incredibly sad and tragic, 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.

There’s even one case I know of, that of a 12-year-old girl named Meredith Prohaska, who died after receiving Gardasil. It turned out that the coroner had ruled that Gardasil had not resulted in her death. Why? Because she found what did: an overdose of the antihistamine diphenhydramine (Benadryl). Unsurprisingly, the publications promoting her story never corrected their articles, and Meredith’s story is still featured as a “death by Gardasil” story on the anti-Gardasil website My Gardasil Story and was described without mention of the true cause of death on the quack website Natural Mentor. So, basically, if the cause of death is not determined, to antivaxers it must have been the HPV vaccine. If it is, as in Meredith Prohaska’s case, determined not to have been related to HPV vaccination, then antivaxers never correct their previous stories. Either that, or the coroner’s findings are dismissed as part of the conspiracy to cover up the dangers of Gardasil.

There is abundant evidence that HPV vaccines are safe and effective, despite the myths about them promoted by the antivaccine movement. Unfortunately, a combination of that very human need to have an explanation for the death of a child and opportunistic exploitation of that need by leaders of the antivaccine movement lead to cases like that of Colton Berrett, Annabelle Morin, Jasmine Soriat, and Christina Tarsell being promoted as “evidence” that Gardasil kills even though they are nothing of the sort. Sadly, the empathy that we all feel for parents who have lost children tends to lead people to take the version of the story presented by the parents and antivaccine movement at face value and accept their conclusion that Gardasil killed their children.