Where have all the guinea pigs gone?
Some healthcare professionals see this as a serious problem
• DRUG BUST by Alan Cassels
• Anyone who discusses vaccines needs to put their perspectives right up front. Here are mine: polarized positions and extreme views are not helpful. Burying inconvenient truths is not helpful. Nor is accusing people of being anti-vaxxers or pharma shills.
Yet I have found that polarized positions dominate mainstream media articles about controversial vaccines – sold as Gardasil and Cervarix – that are supposed to protect people from the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV). That’s unfortunate because it prevents in-depth discussions of the benefits and harms related to the HPV vaccine.
There is one indisputable fact about the nine-year old HPV vaccine: we still have no proof it prevents cervical cancer as claimed. It might take 15 or 20 years to develop cervical cancer after being exposed to HPV so there is simply no body of evidence it has prevented a single case of cancer. Yet many reasonable, thoughtful people posing genuine questions about HPV vaccine safety are systematically shut down.
There seems to be a concerted effort to hide the bad news about the HPV vaccines. Despite numerous reports being gathered around the world of girls suffering autoimmune disorders and other adverse effects following inoculation, almost everywhere medical authorities deny the vaccine could hurt people – some irreversibly so.
For me, this is the headscratcher: can we really believe that the thousands of girls around the globe blaming the HPV vaccine for their inexplicable illnesses are doing so because they have a personal vendetta against the pharmaceutical industry?
Mainstream media is contributing in a very nefarious way: they are making the bad news disappear. Back in August of 2007, Maclean’s Magazine printed a lengthy story on Gardasil titled “Our Girls Are Not Guinea Pigs” with the subtitle, “Is an upcoming mass inoculation of a generation unnecessary and potentially dangerous?” It was a provocative story at the time when Gardasil was still new and controversies swirled around its safety, how it was studied, approved and covered by governments. Today, you won’t find that story on Maclean’s website, or anywhere: Those “Guinea Pigs” have been disappeared.
Fast-forward to February of this year when the Toronto Star, Canada’s largest newspaper, ran a front-page story on the HPV vaccine called “A Wonder Drug’s Dark Side.” It began with, “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.” The essence of this story was solid: girls were apparently being injured by a vaccine they were told would save them from cervical cancer.
A fierce counter-attack soon ensued. The Star was accused of being sensationalistic, anti-science and fear mongering. Complaints abounded, apologies were made and then astonishingly, the story was retracted. Disappeared from the Internet. If you search for it, you won’t find it. Instead, you’ll find a fawning opinion piece signed by about 60 physicians and infectious disease experts declaring the Star’s “Dark Side” story was irresponsible because “study after study has shown there is no causal link between the events the Star reported and the vaccine.”
The Star referred to 60 events related to the HPV vaccine, but is that the whole story? Sadly, finding out how many vaccine adverse events Canadians suffer from is difficult because Canada runs a dual reporting system. Most adverse events are held by the Public Health Agency of Canada, only accessible by access to information requests. (I’ll write more about this in the future).
Looking south, up to May, 2015, the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting (VAER) system in the US has recorded 39,390 adverse events linked to the HPV vaccine and 228 deaths. Remember, these are ‘associations,’ not causation. The vaccine was a suspected cause in these adverse events, but given the nature of adverse event reporting, we can never be sure; one might say there might be up to 3,930 HPV vaccine-related adverse events in Canada.
Experts almost always call adverse events reports made to regulators ‘anecdotal,’ but does that mean we ignore them altogether? Last month,La Revue Prescrire, a French source of independent and critical drug information, published an extensive review of the HPV vaccine and concluded that, although there was no firm evidence of serious harm, regulators around the world have received reports of unexplained fatigue, muscle pain, tachycardia, irritability, confusion and amnesia, as well as more serious seizures, stroke and multiple sclerosis associated with, but probably not caused by, the HPV vaccine.
Can journalists write stories of real-live people and HPV vaccine injury without being accused of fear mongering or being anti-science? Apparently not, according to Toronto journalist Lawrence Solomon who claims there is a strict “media blackout” on vaccine safety stories, a fact he discovered when he tried to report on the measles vaccine. Unable to cast any doubt on the safety of vaccines, Mr. Solomon started his own website (www.vaccinefactcheck.org) and contends that discussing vaccine safety in the English speaking media is “basically taboo.”
This situation was reflected too in my interviews with two women who live in Winlaw, BC. Edda West and Nelle Maxey are members of Vaccine Choice Canada (www.vaccinechoicecanada.com) and both are activists trying to promote vaccine safety. They come to the issue for deeply personal reasons. Edda’s daughter had a severe vaccine reaction back in 1977 and Nelle’s niece was injured by the DPT vaccine.
Having followed issues of vaccine safety for more than 30 years, Edda asserts, “We’re real human beings who are trying to speak of our concerns and our voices are being silenced. We both have family members who have suffered harm from vaccines – we’re mothers, grandmothers, we’ve lived through the gamut. I have never said I’m against vaccines. I want people to make an informed decision about vaccines.”
“So,” I asked them, “why is the mainstream media only giving one side of the HPV vaccine story?
Edda said, “Clearly, the media has been co-opted and paralyzed by ‘consensus science.’” Nelle uses the term “perception management,” referring to a concerted campaign to create the appearance there is no controversy over the HPV vaccine. She knows of many journalists around the globe who are being attacked and silenced for reporting on the experiences of those who have suffered vaccine-related injuries. She tells me she doesn’t feel alone. “We have lots of vaccine allies,” she says.
One of those allies is Freda Birell of Sanevax (www.sanevax.org), an organization devoted to producing quality information about the safety and effectiveness of vaccines. Their website has links to dozens of sites around the world, all united in the belief their daughters have been harmed by the HPV vaccine.
When I asked Freda why the media is so reluctant to report on the safety of the HPV vaccines she wrote back, “The media personnel I have talked to say one of two things: either the pharmaceutical companies threaten the media outlet with pulling their advertising or the health authorities contact them to ‘inform’ them that any press about vaccine risks will damage vaccine uptake and endanger the public health.”
So I’m back to the same question: “Why is it so hard for the mainstream media to discuss – even if they are rare – problems related to the HPV vaccine?”
It’s a rhetorical question I try to answer myself. With over 300 vaccines in development right now, the pharmaceutical industry and others who are invested – professionally and economically – in developing and marketing these products can’t afford for the first “cancer vaccine” to fail. They’ve got too much riding on it. If the cancer vaccine paradigm – represented by the HPV vaccine – has problems, you have to do what you need to do, even if that means you keep burying the guinea pigs.
Alan Cassels is a drug policy researcher at the University of Victoria. He writes about medical screening and drugs, consults with unions on drug benefits plans and is helping research tools to make deprescribing easier for physicians. You can read more of his writings atwww.alancassels.com or follow him on twitter @akecassels