A Shot in the Arm for the Anti-vaccination Lobby, An Adverse Reaction for the Rest

image78The Sunday Express decried it as the “Jab ‘as deadly as the cancer’” right across its front page. Perhaps we should leave proceedings there, given that the same front page was also advertising a free Galaxy Caramel for every reader – this is hardly the British Medical Journal. Besides, I thought Sunday papers were meant to be lighter reading. A topic like this is hardly something to complement a freebie chocolate bar.

But let’s suspend all that for a moment and suppose that this piece of medical whistleblowing is urgent enough to save our confectionary for the Lifestyle pull-out. The claim that a vaccination is as deadly as any cancer is certainly a worrying proposition. The jab in question is to protect against the human Papillomavirus (HPV), a sexually transmitted infection that is the primary cause of cervical cancer. According to the Sunday Express, an “exclusiv[e]” (it wasn’t) interview with “Dr Diane Harper” (she’s actually a professor), who “developed” (she did not, she helped conduct its clinical trials) the “controversial” (she explicitly told them it was not controversial) HPV vaccine Cervarix. A fuller list of errata can be found in Ben Goldacre’s article for The Gardian, as posted on his blog, but the most important is this statement by the Sunday Express:

“THE cervical cancer vaccine may be riskier and more deadly than the cancer it is designed to prevent, a leading expert who developed the drug has warned.”

In an interview with Goldacre, Harper revealed that she never said that Cervarix was as deadly as the cancer it is intended to present, as she has no knowledge of the side-effects of Cervarix; it is not available in the US. Her real concern was that the long-term effectiveness of all cervical cancer vaccines is unknown, and that those receiving a vaccine are liable to take fewer precautions against infection, potentially counteracting the vaccination programme. The Express translated this last statement into this:

“She also claimed the jab would do nothing to reduce the rates of cervical cancer in the UK.”

Harper went on to say that another HPV vaccine, Gardasil, was over-hyped and over-marketed by its manufacturers, given the lack of knowledge of its long-term protection. The Express reported that it was Cervarix that was over-marketed, assuming it to be the same (or a similar) drug.

The article comes amid a flurry of cervical cancer vaccine scare stories, Primarily concerned with girls showing adverse reactions to the HPV jab Gardasil in the USA, where it is commonplace. It’s another vaccine scare that plucks at parental bonds, since the drug is administered to 12- to 13-year-old girls; old enough to cope with the jab, but not old enough to be sexually active.

So is the jab really “as deadly as the cancer”? Worldwide, the incidence of cervical cancer is about 16 per 100,000 women, and deaths from cervical cancer about 9 per 100,000. Of 35 million vaccinated women in the USA, nearly 19,000 suffered side effects of some kind, equivalent to around 55 per 100,000. Sounds worse, you might think, but many of these side effects were mild, transient and a single event. Serious side effects affected 5 per 100,000 vaccinated women – we’re already winning over the cancer itself. No deaths have yet been linked to the jab, but even if you’re prepared to believe that it’s all a big cover-up, the cumulative recorded deaths within 12 months of the jab number 68 from 35 million ; much less than 1 per 100,000, and that includes deaths by myriad other causes. So maybe the jab affects more people than cervical cancer, but all in all the risks are considerably smaller for the jab, even if the jab were only 10% effective. And let’s not forget that while cervical cancer may be treatable, the side effects of chemotherapy and surgical removal of affected tissue are generally more unpleasant than those of the jab, and all cancers come with the risk of the tumour spreading to other organs.

A reference to the original article is, alas, unavailable. When I checked, the Express appear to have removed the article from their site. To their credit, they did post a correction a few days later, but errata are printed well away from the main pages, and so the Express have done little to dispel this myth. The statement that Cervarix “would do nothing to reduce the rates of cervical cancer in the UK” has been revised to the following:

“We now accept that there is no evidence to suggest that this is the case and that Cervarix in fact provides protection against the viruses that cause 70 per cent of cervical cancers.”

There’s also very little apology or explanation for how this tabloid managed to get the original article so hopelessly wrong. As it is, this rumour is now doing the rounds all over the internet, including Alex Jones’ site, Infowars. It’s just too convincing on the surface for anti-vaccination proponents to refuse. All I have left to add is this sentiment of mine which I hope the readers will take on board: Until the medical journals start offering free chocolate bars to their readers, I know where I’ll be getting my health advice.