I’m not a regular reader of the Guardian’s “woo-medicine”-debunking columnist Ben Goldacre, and when I do read him I often disagree with him.
But he hit a home run with his latest Bad Science column.
He took apart a front page Sunday Express article that has already been widely disseminated around scare sites on the Internet. Of course, you can’t read it on the Sunday Express site anymore because it's been removed. Probably because Dr Diane Harper, who was quoted as saying that HPV vaccines are more dangerous than cervical cancer, is about to sue the pin-striped pants off the always-lurid Express. Or so I hope.
I’ve often felt sorry for Dr Harper. She seems like a forthright, intelligent scientist who removes herself from Merck’s marketing hysteria to make sensible cautionary comments about the Gardasil vaccine, which she has worked on and in general supports. But her comments are frequently taken out of context and paraded around the web as if she were an anti-vaccine crusader.
As someone who is wary of Gardasil to the point of thus far turning it down for my daughters, who have a family history of autoimmune disease; as someone who would like to see an awful lot of very serious questions about Gardasil taken very seriously and answered very seriously, it makes me LIVID. We need more people in the pharmaceutical industry to encourage scientists, physicians and the public to ask intelligent questions and not simply swallow the party line wholesale. So-called reporters like the notorious Express’s Lucy Johnston badly undermine the likelihood of that happening.
If I’ve understood Dr. Harper correctly—forgive me if I haven’t, Dr. Harper, and feel free to correct me—she thinks that HPV vaccines are in general a good thing but that Gardasil should have been introduced more slowly and cautiously; and that perhaps people with family histories of auto-immune disorders should be particularly cautious. She thinks—again, if I understand correctly—that Merck’s unprecedented intensive marketing campaign has oversold Gardasil; that the 3-shot series and its marketing might make women cavalier about still-essential annual exams; that we don’t know how long protection will last.
According to Goldacre, what she doesn’t think is what she was reported as saying in the Express’s article. That the cervical cancer vaccine 'may be riskier and more deadly than the cancer it is designed to prevent.' That the jab 'would do nothing to reduce the rates of cervical cancer in the UK.' Etc., etc., etc.
Goldacre simply contacted Harper directly when he read the article.
“I will explain Harper's position in her own words,” he writes. “They are unambiguous: ‘I did not say that Cervarix was as deadly as cervical cancer. I did not say that Cervarix could be riskier or more deadly than cervical cancer. I did not say that Cervarix was controversial, I stated that Cervarix is not a 'controversial drug'. I did not 'hit out' – I was contacted by the press for facts. And this was not an exclusive interview.”
Harper did not "develop Cervarix" but she did work on some important trials of Gardasil and also Cervarix. "Gardasil is not a 'sister vaccine' as the Express said, it is a different compound. I do not know of the side effects of Cervarix as it is not available in the US.’
“She did not say that Cervarix was being overmarketed. ‘I did say that Merck was egregiously overmarketing Gardasil in the US – but Gardasil and Cervarix are not the same vaccines’…She also suspects from modelling data that for the specific and restricted group of women who are punctilious about attending every single one of their cervical cancer screening appointments, vaccination may have little impact on their risk of death from cancer; but even they will benefit from the reduction in reproductive problems caused by treating pre-cancerous changes in cervical cells.
‘I fully support the HPV vaccines," she says. "I believe that in general they are safe in most women. I told the Express all of this.’”
That was a lot of Goldacre’s column to reproduce. But I think it bears repeating as long as the Sunday Express article inevitably circulates and spawns more mis-information.