Anti-HPV vaccine myths have fatal consequences

Political and media support for false claims condemns young people to preventable deaths

‘We stand on the cusp of a new era where we finally have the means to prevent an entire class of cancers.’ Photograph: David Cheskin/PA Wire

‘We stand on the cusp of a new era where we finally have the means to prevent an entire class of cancers.’ Photograph: David Cheskin/PA Wire

 

After clean water, there is no health intervention that has saved more lives than vaccination – and none that has inspired more misguided opposition. This has been exemplified recently by the furore over the human papilloma virus (HPV) vaccine.

In principle, this should hardly be controversial – HPV can lead to an array of cancers, including anal, penile and oral cancers. More than 90 per cent of cervical cancers alone are caused by HPV, a disease that killed 270,000 worldwide in 2012, with 10 per cent of women requiring invasive treatment for precancer over their lifetime.

The HPV vaccine is extremely effective against the most odious strains of the virus, with the potential to dramatically reduce cancers and save untold lives.

Yet uptake rates have fallen precipitously, compounded by the bizarre spectacle of public figures condemning the vaccine. The safety of the vaccine has been questioned by politicians such as Clare Daly to broadcaster George Hook. Junior health minister Finian McGrath called for withdrawal of the vaccine, while TD Mattie McGrath demanded HSE head Tony O’Brien be fired for criticising the tactics of antivaccine groups.

Chief among these is lobby group Regret, who claim the vaccine is harmful, insisting scores of women are “vaccine injured”. Since its inception in 2015, they have been directly responsible for orchestrated lobbying which has seen uptake fall from highs of 87 per cent to lows of 50 per cent.

Its assertions have been amplified too by media coverage, including a TV3 documentary that repeated its narrative uncritically, despite it remaining unsubstantiated. Yet these claims fail to withstand even cursory investigation.

The acquiescence of politicians and broadcasters to the narrative of anti-vaccine groups is damaging to public health

Like all clinical compounds, Gardasil has been extensively tested and stringently monitored for potential adverse effects. With hundreds of millions of doses given worldwide, there is ample data telling the same story – that it’s an exceedingly effective and safe intervention.

It has a low complication rate, with the most substantial negative reactions being irritation at injection site, and fainting post-injection – precisely the same minor temporary reactions seen with any shot.

Vaccine safety

The safety of the vaccine has been repeatedly demonstrated in numerous investigations, including a 2015 study of more than a million people. The reality is that even in these huge datasets, claimed adverse effects simply do not materialise, and no evidence linking vaccination to the myriad health complaints campaigners claim, which are perhaps tellingly non-specific and subjective.

Yet despite this, Regret continues to dismiss any other explanation for their maladies. Viewed in this light, the acquiescence of various politicians and broadcasters to the narrative of such groups is not just misguided but wilfully damaging to public health.

We’ve seen this before – in the twilight of the 1990s, Andrew Wakefield claimed a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. The evidence presented was so flimsy and thoroughly contradicted by overwhelming contrary evidence that it was largely dismissed by science journalists. In an ideal world, this would have been the end of it. Instead, antivaccines activists targeted non-science journalists with their tales, who uncritically regurgitated them as “human interest” stories.

This proved a devastatingly effective approach – unshackled from the tyranny of basic fact-checking, lurid and emotive accounts of “vaccine damage” flooded UK papers. As we humans tend to reason emotively rather than rationally, it didn’t matter that these stories were completely false; that they sowed apprehension was enough.

Bogus claims

Nor did it matter that scientific experts the world over refuted these bogus claims – dry scientific evidence could not compete with visceral concerns for children, however unfounded they were.

By 2002, a massive 10 per cent of all science stories concerned the MMR vaccine, with an alarming 80 per cent of these not authored by science or medicine reporters but by broadcasters and columnists who displayed a credulousness towards antivaccine narratives and complete contempt towards scientific evidence simultaneously.

In the words of Ben Goldacre, “. . . suddenly we were getting comment and advice on complex matters of immunology and epidemiology from people who would more usually have been telling us about a funny thing that happened with the au pair on the way to a dinner party”.

Political posturing ensued too, with concerns expressed and the health service attacked – questions over whether Tony Blair’s son was vaccinated featured in 32 per cent of MMR stories that year.

Tragic results

Inevitably, the results were tragic – swayed by scaremongering, parents opted to not vaccinate their children. Immunisation rates fell sharply below herd immunity levels, and outbreaks of incredibly virulent measles became commonplace, killing and maiming children across Europe. Wakefield was later exposed, but the damage was done.

Groups and public figures who peddle anti-vaccine nonsense ultimately condemn young people to preventable deaths

Today across Europe and America, measles outbreaks, once edging on extinction thanks to widespread vaccination, have become endemic again, with these wrong-headed fears and undying zombie myths still depressing immunisation rates.

This modern history of the antivaccine movement has shown it craves both media and political validation to give its baseless claims a veneer of legitimacy. When granted these, it wreaks untold damage.

Given politicians and broadcasters have influence (and dedicated researchers) that most people do not, there is no excuse for it to proliferate such disinformation.

To do so suggests a toxic combination of pomposity and ignorance, or cynicism enough to hop on a bandwagon with no regard for the consequences.

As the HSE escalates its fight-back against antivaccine groups, this has been seen in the screeching U-turns of political opportunists, such as Sinn Féin pivoting from “concern” to all-out endorsement within six days. Untenable as his position is, Finian McGrath has undergone a curiously similar Damascene conversion.

Whatever their motivations, groups and public figures who peddle antivaccine nonsense ultimately condemn young people to preventable deaths.

Their assertions should be treated with extreme scepticism, and I would implore readers with concerns to talk with health and science professionals.

We stand on the cusp of a new era where we finally have the means to prevent an entire class of cancers. It would be a tragedy if ancient antivaccine falsehoods were to hobble this.

Dr David Robert Grimes is a physicist, cancer researcher and science writer

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