HPV vaccines

A few of my friends on Facebook have recently posted links to an article entitled ‘The Lead Vaccine Developer Comes Clean So She Can “Sleep At Night”: Gardasil And Cervarix Don’t Work, Are Dangerous, And Weren’t Tested.’ by Sarah Cain.  I’m writing a brief commentary because this article is misleading and I want to explain why.

Let’s start with the title.  The article never quotes Dr. Harper as saying that she can’t sleep at night, or that she wants to come clean for some misdeed.  It scarcely quotes her at all, actually, and it doesn’t give a link to the text of her speech in 2009.  I could not find the text of this speech through a google search, so it’s very difficult to know what, exactly, she said.  The article does quote a Joan Robinson who comments on her own perceptions of Dr. Harper’s talk, but does not give Ms. Robinson’s credentials.  I was able to find other interviews with Dr. Harper, and in none of them does she suggest that the HPV vaccines don’t work, are inherently dangerous, or weren’t tested.  What she does say is that these vaccines only protect against certain oncogenic strains of HPV and not others (which the article conflates to a suggestion that the vaccines “don’t work”), that women who are vaccinated do not always understand this and therefore are at risk of skipping Pap screenings (which the article conflates to a suggestion that the vaccines “are dangerous”), and that long term (eg, 15 year) efficacy of these vaccines is not yet established (which the article conflates to a suggestion that the vaccines “weren’t tested”).

Moving on to the body of the article itself – it is true that most HPV infections resolve themselves without treatment.  It is also true that there have been tens of thousands of adverse reactions to the vaccinations reported – but it is important to keep in mind that the vast majority of these have been minor and common to all vaccinations (pain and swelling, fainting, soreness at the injection site).  Regarding the possibility of more serious reactions, Google searching did not reveal much reliable reporting about these.  A Slate article says there were none, and I am inclined to believe this is true or very close to true.  At any rate, there were certainly not tens of thousands of deaths or serious adverse reactions, as the article implies.  If there were any serious reactions at all, there were few.  To be quite frank, if there had been adverse reactions in large numbers, this issue would have been reported much sooner and by a much larger news source than “Southweb Real News.”

Vaccines (including the HPV vaccines) are very thoroughly tested before being released to the public.  They are not simply invented by a biochemist at a pharmaceutical company and then dumped on us.  The CDC has a very helpful website which explains how vaccine safety is verified and monitored.

This point gets its own paragraph.  The article states that “At the time of writing, 44 girls are officially known to have died from these vaccines.” I could find no confirmation of this whatsoever.  Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence – the author, Sarah Hain, provides no evidence whatsoever here, though.  No reference, no link.  As far as I can tell, she invented this out of whole cloth.

It is true that Pap screenings alone have significantly decreased the incidence of cervical cancer.  The HPV vaccines are not intended to replace screenings; as I understand them, they are intended as a tool to decrease even further the incidence of cervical cancer and pre-cancer.

What’s most upsetting to me about Sarah Hain’s article is that it mixes fact and fiction, and gives no references for her claims.  It plays on existing fears about vaccines, and will appeal to a portion of the population which is already inclined to believe that the medical establishment’s sole motive is profit at any human cost.  It plays on confirmation bias – if I already believe what someone is telling me, then I will not question it as deeply as I otherwise would.  We all do this; it’s not a personal failing of one person or another, it’s something everyone does, regardless of their perspective.  Critical thinking and science are meant to root out confirmation bias, and force us to question even those things that we believe to be true, because (and here’s the important point, kids) believing something to be true has absolutely no bearing on whether it is.  Which, really, is quite amazing.

Anyway, back to HPV vaccines.  The following interview with Dr. Harper from 2011 gives a far more nuanced (and to me, interesting) perspective on HPV vaccination and its limitations.  I’m particularly fascinated by what she says at the end about differential duration of efficacy between males and females.  I’m incredibly curious about why this would be.  But she never says anything as sensationalistic as Sarah Cain’s article implies.

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