How media disappears bad news about HPV vaccines

Where have all the guinea pigs gone?

Some healthcare professionals see this as a serious problem

• DRUG BUST by Alan Cassels

PhotoHeadshotAlanCassels • 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 ( 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 ( 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 (, 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 or follow him on twitter @akecassels

7 thoughts on “How media disappears bad news about HPV vaccines”

  1. So a vaccine that prevents a virus that causes a cancer has not been proven to prevent that cancer.

    So what you’re saying is if someone takes all the bullets away from a killer it won’t stop him from shooting you with a gun?

  2. In moving towards solutions, Canada needs “normal” liability on vaccines; there currently is none, or, as I’ve been told by Klein law firm, you can “sue” over “vaccine injury” but you would “need billions of dollars and even that wouldn’t be enough.” Hard to know the truth on anything when there is not the usual avenue of accountability. Even the new Vanessa’s Law does not appear to include vaccines. It’s a winning situation from a business point of view: have governments recommend your products with no liability (and yes, fear of lawsuit does freak businesses out and motivates them to create safe products). But I just want to know where Canada and America are going to get healthy adults in twenty years, what is coming may be national disasters. People under 40–and especially under the age of 20–are crushed with autoimmune illness. With the birth rate being near zero (1.6 per woman in Canada), do we really have time to keep splitting hairs, and especially with 300 more vaccines coming? Juliet Guichon, don’t worry, many of the girls are too sick to get out of bed, let alone give birth. We need solutions TODAY.

  3. When the Toronto Star removed its “Dark Side” article, the publisher wrote, “The Star fell short in not giving its readers public health information in a manner that meets the standards of responsibility expected in evidence-based science journalism. In matters of life, death and public health, the science matters.”

    The issue is responsible media reporting. At least 175 million doses of the HPV vaccine have been administered world wide. People will suffer both good and bad events after administration. If the media wrote a story, “Victoria B.C. woman wins scholarship after HPV vaccination”, then that would be irresponsible reporting because the headline would suggest that there was a causal link between the vaccine and the scholarship award.

    Government agencies (in Canada, the United States, European nations among many others) investigate reports of bad events after HPV vaccination. The media ought to report the outcomes of these investigations. The reports themselves are not as important as the judgment of the reports.

    The World Health Organization’s vaccine committee studied the safety of the HPV vaccine and concluded on June 13, 2013: “In summary, 4 years after the last review of HPV vaccine safety and with more than 170 million doses distributed worldwide and more countries offering the vaccine through national immunization programs, the Committee continues to be reassured by the safety profile of the available products.”

    In March 2014, the same body reaffirmed its previous conclusion “As stated before, allegations of harm from vaccination based on weak evidence can lead to real harm when, as a result, safe and effective vaccines cease to be used.”

    The HPV vaccine has not yet been demonstrated to prevent cancer because of the relevant cancers’ long latency periods. The vaccine has been demonstrated to prevent the infection that leads to the cancers. If there is no infection, then there will be no cancer. To make an analogy, if a train leaving Vancouver is due to arrive in Montreal six days later on July 7, but does not leave Vancouver at all, then it is safe to say before July 7 that the train won’t arrive in Montreal. On July 5, someone could correctly say that there is the train has not been proven to fail to arrive in Montreal. But if the train hasn’t left Vancouver, then it won’t get to Montreal.

    Balanced articles would include description of the symptoms, treatment and mortality rates of the diseases the HPV vaccine is designed to prevent. Here is one support group discussion easily. revealing what women endure regarding diagnosis and treatment of precancerous cervical lesions and cervical cancer. It is a horrible disease that affects intimate parts of the body that are difficult and can be embarrassing to access.

    Media might report the effect of HPV infection on men and women. For women, these effects can include giving birth prematurely because of treatment consequences and even death in mid-life leaving young children.


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