HPV 'scare' doesn't change safety and efficacy of vaccine
Published 16/12/2015 | 02:30
Worrying about vaccine side-effects is, ironically, a side-effect of vaccines' effectiveness. You see we've completely forgotten what it was like to see, for example, a childhood epidemic sweep across the country.
It turns out you can have too much of a good thing. How else to explain the terrifying complacency that has infiltrated modern attitudes to immunisation? How else to explain the current HPV vaccine 'controversy' that could encourage other parents to forgo widely accepted and life-saving preventative measures, putting their own daughters at risk.
It's like MMR and the Andrew Wakefield scare all over again. A scare that was carefully evaluated, talked about and deliberated upon by every media outlet.
It was, as Ben Goldacre writes in his book, 'Bad Science', "the proto-typical health scare, by which all others must be judged and understood. It has every ingredient, every canard, every sleight of hand and, every aspect of venal incompetence and hysteria, systemic and individual".
The story was everywhere in the late 1990s. In fact, Goldacre writes that there were well in excess of one thousand articles about MMR in the British national press.
What began as Wakefield's research findings in 'The Lancet' turned, quite possibly, into one of the most hyperbolic health 'scandals' of the late 20th century. The story just took hold of the public imagination and ran and ran.
It was impassioned, it was heartbreaking. What if previously healthy children retreated into an autistic world where no one could reach them because of a single vaccination?
The most inescapable feature of the whole story was the idea that the very act of protecting a child might harm them.
Real-life stories were everywhere, anecdotal evidence was everywhere, something far more swaying than the repeated counter claim that MMR was safe. It was powerful stuff, words and images that played on every parent's darkest nightmares.
The now-retracted paper that set the MMR-autism dominoes tumbling was published by Wakefield and a dozen co-authors in 'The Lancet' back in February 1998. It provided case histories for just 12 children (yes, that's a sample size of just 12).
A subsequent 2004 investigation by 'The Sunday Times' identified undisclosed financial conflicts of interest on Wakefield's part, and all of his co-authors withdrew their support for the study's interpretations.
Wakefield had also held the patent for an alternative vaccine.
He was stripped of his medical licence in 2010 by the UK's General Medical Council for ethical violations and failure to disclose potentially competing financial interests. Wakefield is no longer a doctor, yet fears about MMR still linger.
On Monday night, TV3 broadcast a documentary, 'Cervical Vaccine: Is It Safe?' in which teenagers claimed that the HPV vaccine Gardasil, which is administered to schoolgirls through a nationwide programme, has caused them health problems.
Last week, the Joint Committee on Health and Children discussed the HPV vaccine and heard from representatives of the REGRET support group (Reactions and Effects of Gardasil Resulting in Extreme Trauma) as well as officials from the Department of Health and the HSE.
Earlier in the week, the High Court refused an injunction seeking the HPRA (Health Products Regulatory Authority) to withdraw the HPV vaccine. In a submission, the HPRA indicated that only the European Commission could make such a decision to withdraw the vaccine, and that the Commission was due to make a final decision next year.
Health Minister Leo Varadkar has said that it is a safe vaccine.
Two weeks before, a risk-assessment committee of European Medicines Agency found, after a detailed scientific review of the evidence about complex regional pain syndrome and postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome in young women given the vaccine, that there's zero evidence that the overall rates of the two syndromes in vaccinated girls were different from expected rates, even taking into account possible under-reporting.
So this latest HPV controversy isn't about the safety and efficacy of vaccines: that's as settled as any question in medical science can ever be.
The internet has improved our ability to connect and communicate but unfortunately it's also put a megaphone to the mouth of people who would've usually shouted their opinion into a tin can in their bunker.
These days, words on a blog carry the same weight for some as an article published in a medical journal and the title 'doctor' is not always as convincing as an Instagram filter.
There are even some parts of the world where diseases are reappearing due to low immunisation rates, and it's not in Third World countries, it's in affluent countries where parents have decided they can stave off measles with a Nutribullet.
Seventy-five women die in agony from cervical cancer here every year and now we have a vaccine to combat this.
But if our daughters are not vaccinated, we could be responsible for their deaths. Does anyone really want that on their conscience?