An article in the UK Independent highlights some troubling questions on the safety of many commonly used vaccines,especially the so-called anti-cervical cancer HPV vaccine. It’s good to see some attention being paid to a subject that is almost exclusively the purview of so-called “alternative” news and health websites. No one sane can deny there are issues to be addressed on this subject, and the vexed question of risk versus benefit shouldn’t be relegated to the sidelines or regarded as a rather loony bit of conspiracy-theorising. Public health depends on it, as does individual human well being.
So, the Indy article is welcome, though it falls far short of being a completely impartial and thorough investigation. It gives us a glimpse of some of the vaccine horror stories out there, though there are worse and looks at one teenage girl’s ghastly experience after receiving the routine HPV (cervical cancer) vaccine. It also includes some pretty thought-provoking statistics on the total number of adverse drug reaction (ADR) reports since 2005. It also cites a Danish TV documentary that looked into the large numbers of girls suffering side-effects from the HPV vaccines.
But it’s less than thorough or hard hitting. It’s only fair that it includes statements from both Cancer Research and the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), but it fails to interrogate these statements to any real extent. Cancer Research is cited as alleging:
about 3,000 women a year are diagnosed with cervical cancer and it is estimated that about 400 lives could be saved every year as a result of vaccinating girls before they are infected with the human papilloma virus.
And the MHRA is quoted as saying:
The vast majority of suspected side effect reports for HPV vaccine relate to known risks of vaccination that are well described in the available product information. The reporting rate of suspected side effects, which are not necessarily proven to be caused by the vaccine, is influenced by many factors and expected to differ across vaccines. The greater number of reports for HPV vaccine does not necessarily mean that it is any less safe than other vaccines…”
And most specifically:
“expected benefits in preventing illness and death from HPV infection outweigh the known risks”.
There is no direct questioning of these claims and statistics in the article. But 8,000 teenage girls with ADR in the last ten years, versus 4,000 lives that “could be” saved in the same period is really not that impressive. And given the horrendous severity of some side effects, including paralysis, multiple sclerosis, strokes, encephalitis and even death, a little more than this lame fudging should be required. The Indy could point out that even Cancer Research’s own statistics don’t seem to be telling the story they want to tell. They could ask CR why they seem more concerned with propping up a questioned and questionable protocol than with the welfare of the cancer sufferers they are supposed to serve. The Indy could even ask the obvious question – given these stats, do the HPV vaccines work as well as is claimed by their own advocates?
Do they even work at all?
The absence of these lines of questioning frames the Indy debate. It acts as a subtle reinforcement of the effectiveness of the very therapy ostensibly under interrogation. The fact that the side-effect are under review but the efficacy of the vaccines is not gives the impression that the latter must be beyond doubt.
And this is a shame, because beyond this framing we find the efficacy of the HPV vaccines has been in considerable doubt, for some considerable time. Back in 2009, for example, and reported on CBS, Dr. Diane Harper, a developer of Gardasil (one of the leading brands of HPV vaccine) – expressed doubts about the effectiveness as well as the safety of her product, and of the “aggressive” marketing strategy adopted by Merck, the vaccine’s manufacturer. With startling honesty, this Merck employee claimed:
Gardasil has been associated with at least as many serious adverse events as there are deaths from cervical cancer developing each year…”
And was further quoted in the article:
Dr. Harper…says the side effects reported so far call for more complete disclosure to patients. She says they should be told that protection from the vaccination might not last long enough to provide a cancer protection benefit, and that its risks – “small but real” – could occur more often than the cervical cancer itself would.” [my emphasis]
Coming from such a source this is a fairly devastating disclosure, even given her weak (and probably legally advised) qualifier that “Dr. Harper agrees with Merck and the CDC that Gardasil is safe for most girls and women.” Another physician, Dr. Frank Ratner, whose daughter suffered severe side effects from the vaccine was also quoted in this article as saying:
My daughter went from a varsity lacrosse player at Choate to a chronically ill, steroid-dependent patient with autoimmune myofasciitis. I’ve had to ask myself why I let my eldest of three daughters get an unproven vaccine against a few strains of a nonlethal virus that can be dealt with in more effective ways.”
More recently, in 2014, another former Merck employee, Dr Bernard Dalbergue, was even more forthright in an interview for the French magazine Principe de Santé Describing Gardasil as “the biggest scandal in medical history”, he went on to say:
The full extent of the Gardasil scandal needs to be assessed. Everyone knew when this vaccine was released on the American market that it would prove to be worthless. Diane Harper, a major opinion leader in the United States, was one of the first to blow the whistle, pointing out the fraud and scam of it all.” [my emphasis] partial English translation here
Worthless? Really? Well, yes, maybe, said Jeanne Lenzer in Discover magazine, 2011. Lenzer did a little digging behind the claims of “98% success” in preventing cervical cancer that Merck was making in the press.
To achieve the 98 percent efficacy claim, Merck excluded from analysis anyone who “violated” the study protocol. In other words, all real-world problems that arose were excluded from analysis. Problems like girls who refused to take a second or third shot after they became sick and (correctly or incorrectly) blamed the vaccine. Or doctors who incorrectly gave the vaccine to someone who shouldn’t have received it. While it’s worth knowing how effective the vaccine is when it’s used exactly as it should be, for a public-health decision, it’s not as relevant as its real-world effectiveness.
To Merck’s credit, they reported that when all women in the study were analyzed, the vaccine’s efficacy dropped to 44 percent. Still, 44 percent might be considered a smashing success when you’re talking about saving lives. Except for one thing: the numbers get worse. The 44 percent benefit included only those women with the two specific cancer-causing HPV strains found in the vaccine. But when the researchers looked at negative cervical changes from any causes, they found that changes occurred in unvaccinated women at a rate of 1.5 events per 100 person-years, while vaccinated women had 1.3 events—dropping the benefit to 17 percent.
Moreover, most of the cervical changes tracked by the researchers weren’t even indicative of cervical cancer in the first place. Most were innocent cellular abnormalities that either disappear entirely on their own, or never progress to cancer. In fact, when they looked more closely at advanced cervical changes most likely to progress to cancer versus more innocent changes that go away spontaneously, it was the innocent changes that accounted for the decline.”
In other words, Merck’s own results actually showed almost no decline in potential cancer cells in the vaccinated subjects.
So, is Cancer Research’s lame defence of 8,000+ ADR reports versus 4,000 potential lives saved over ten years actually an over-sell? Is it closer to the truth to say we don’t know how many lives Gardasil has saved – maybe some, maybe none at all?
If so, why is this “worthless” product still being promoted, indeed made mandatory in some US states? Is this public health or enforced consumerism?
I think the Indy should have gone the extra few yards to ask these questions, don’t you? Maybe even demanded that Gardasil and its cousins, the other HPV vaccines should all be withdrawn from the market pending further research on their safety and effectiveness.
Once upon a time I think they might have gone that far. But that was then. This is now.