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How not to report about vaccine safety issues, Toronto Star edition

This is the original headline of the Toronto Star's scientifically incompetent and fear mongering Gardasil story. It was later changed to "Families seek more transparency on HPV vaccine."

This is the original headline of the Toronto Star‘s scientifically incompetent and fear mongering Gardasil story. It was later changed to “Families seek more transparency on HPV vaccine.”

I remember it well, because several of my readers forwarded it to me not long after it appeared on the website of the Toronto Star: An eye-catching headline proclaiming a “wonder drug’s dark side,” that “wonder drug” being Gardasil, one of two vaccines against the human papilloma virus (HPV) designed to prevent cervical cancer by preventing infection with the HPV virus. The story’s caption blared:

Hundreds of thousands of teen girls in Canada have safely taken Gardasil, a vaccine shown to prevent HPV. But a Star investigation has found that since 2008 at least 60 Canadians have experienced debilitating illnesses after inoculation. Patients and parents say the incidents point to the importance of full disclosure of risks.

There was even a video that would have been right at home on a variety of antivaccine websites, such as Age of Autism, SafeMinds, or VaxTruth:

Indeed, the video above reminded me more than anything else, of a segment from the antivaccine “documentary” that functions as antivaccine propaganda, The Greater Good, which portrays as one of its vaccine “victims” Gabi Swank, a girl whose story is not unlike that of Kaitlyn Armstrong, the teen profiled by the Star. Both girls had a deterioration of their health that appears to have happened sometime after receiving Gardasil. Both attribute their health issues to Gardasil. Neither story was examined with even a modicum of skepticism or critical thinking. In fact, part of the reason I recognized immediately how bad the Star story was derives from my previous experience examining similar stories promoted by the particularly vociferous wing of the antivaccine movement that focuses on the perceived “evils” of Gardasil. That’s something we expect from an antivaccine propaganda film like The Greater Good. We expect better from investigative journalists like David Bruser and Jesse McLean. We don’t get it.

I had meant to blog about this incident because the Star story was such a horrendously bad story from a scientific perspective, but, blogging being what it is, other topics intruded and for some reason I never got back to this topic. Over the last 11 days, however, the criticism and inept responses kept percolating along, as you will see, involving a clueless editor who lashed out at critics, a public editor who just didn’t “get it,” and a newspaper that took far too long to admit that it had screwed up epically and only then after sliming its critics. Fortunately, an excellent analysis in the Los Angeles Times by Michael Hiltzik provided me with an “in” to do the post I had wanted to do before. How the Toronto Star wrote the story is an object lesson in how not to do a vaccine safety story, and how it responded to reasonable criticism was an even more pointed lesson in how not to deal with scientific critics.

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Posted in: Science and the Media, Vaccines

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Cunnilingus, Michael Douglas’s Cancer, and the HPV Vaccine

Conservative Christians are calling for banning oral and anal sex between consenting adults, claiming that the practices allow for the spread of disease. Radio host Brian Fischer says that a rise in head, neck and throat cancers “among millennials” is a direct result of the influence of “Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky.” He compares oral sex and homosexual sex to drug trafficking, pedophilia and bestiality. He hasn’t decided how offenders should be punished but he suggests either issuing summonses like parking tickets or putting them into programs akin to drug rehab. He says Liz Cheney (the daughter of former Vice President Cheney) is “not a patriot” because she may support gay marriage.

Those of us who want the government to stay the hell out of our bedrooms will gladly ignore such rants, but the health risks of sexual practices are real. Michael Douglas recently shocked the world by announcing that cunnilingus could have caused his throat cancer. He was right, it could have.

HPV causes several kinds of cancer

Most head and neck cancers are caused by tobacco and alcohol, but researchers believe that up to 80% of oropharyngeal cancers are due to HPV (human papilloma virus) infection. The cause can be confirmed by testing biopsy samples for HPV DNA. The incidence of throat cancer caused by HPV is rising rapidly (a 225% increase from 1988 to 2004) and has been attributed to an increase in oral sex. It is estimated that by 2020 HPV will cause more oropharyngeal cancers than cervical cancers in the US. (more…)

Posted in: Cancer, Vaccines

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