I was just about to go to sleep when I came across this gem of sensationalist science reporting from Australia’s Today Tonight. Whilst this is not a recent story, it serves as a good example of how generalist journalists can completely cock-up an important public health story. Oh the stupidity, it burns…

Gardasil side effects controversy.

This story was screened on the incredibly erudite and well-researched-magazine-style-piece-of-fluff show, Today Tonight on December 7, 2007. I know this is over a year ago, but this kind of misrepresentation of science continues to occur all over the world and in many different incarnations. I was reminded of the extent of this nonsense during a recent conversation with Dr Ben Goldcare of the Bad Science column and blog. He has spent years tirelessly fighting the perpetuators of misinformation (in his own time, for no money) who will often go to incredible extremes just to get a sensationalist story*.

In this instance, the reporter Laura Sparkes has outdone herself by criticising the work of Professor Ian Frazer, a Queensland immunologist who’s team of researchers are responsible for developing the cervical cancer vaccine, marketed as Gardasil and more recently a skin cancer vaccine. Laura reports on two cases of adverse reactions by teenage girls after receiving the vaccine. Now if this is true, then it needs to be treated with all seriousness. There are mechanisms in place in Australia for reporting adverse reactions to registered drugs and this is particularly important when a new drug is released. But there is no need to get hysterical Laura.

“I had a headache, I was dizzy, I was nauseous, my right side was weak, my right fist was clenched and I was hallucinating,” Allie said. Gardasil has been hailed as a medical breakthrough, the first ever immunisation against cancer; but no-one was warned about this.

Well, this is just not true Laura. You can go to Gardasil’s own website where the side effects are listed on the front page and the TGA also details a list of adverse effects. It’s a government requirement that all drugs come with warnings of even the most unlikely or rare adverse effects. Whether this information was passed onto the girls I do not know, but certainly this information is publicly available.

But here’s where Laura really should have done her research when reporting on a serious public health issue. She asks the opinion of one Bronwyn Hancock from the vaccination information service, who is cited in the article as a “scientist and health researcher”. Long bow Laura. According to their website, Bronwyn has a BSc from Macquarie University obtained in 1981, which she never used – instead she went onto to work in computer programming for 14 years (which I don’t disparage, I just don’t think you can call yourself a scientist unless you have worked in the field). I hardly think you can call yourself a “scientist and health researcher” just because you have a BSc on paper. If I qualified as a hairdresser but never worked as one, then 14 years later offered to cut your hair, would you let me? She also has a certificate of nutrition which hardly qualifies you for anything particularly useful with respect to vaccines and immunology.

But this extract from her bio worries me even more.

“…to bring to the awareness of the public what is well published in the depths of medical research about this procedure, but is generally not studied or at least brought to the attention of the public by doctors or the media, due, it would seem, to the heavy influence of the “health”, rather sickness, industry”.

The depths of medical research? Hey Bronwyn, ever heard of the public database PubMed? Oh who really cares, you lost me with the big pharma conspiracy stuff at the end.

Then this little gem; “The Gardasil vaccine has never been shown to be safe or effective in preventing cervical cancer,” Bronwyn said. “There are so many limitations with the testing that they’ve done.” Okay so if you really are a scientist you would understand the structure of clinical trials, involving 4 phases of testing and millions of dollars and many, many years, (sometimes decades) before the drug is approved for human use.

People like this infuriate me because they detract from the complex and intricate process that is science. They also contribute to the public misunderstanding of science by suggesting that we just design a drug, test it on a bunny a couple of times then throw it out to the public, meanwhile exclaiming “it’s alive!”. The drug development process is complex, extensive and expensive. It makes my blood boil that people this daft are given air time to undermine the brilliant and thorough work of scientists like Professor Frazer, who has since gone on to develop a skin cancer vaccine.

Two strains of human papiloma virus (HPV) have been shown to cause cervical cancer. In 2006, the cancer council of New South Wales estimated there would be approximately 240 new cases and around 75 deaths attributable to cervical cancer in NSW. Worldwide, cervical cancer is the second most common cancer in women and it is estimated to result in over 470,000 new cases and cause 233,000 deaths per year worldwide.

Meanwhile in 2006, Professor Frazer was honoured with the Australian of the year for his work on the cervical cancer vaccine. This later resulted in his research facility attracting a $500 million donation from a wealthy Taiwanese donor. High praise indeed.

I wonder how many lives Bronwyn and her cronies can claim to have saved by perpetuating misinformation and lies about the effectiveness and science behind vaccines.

Congratulations morons.

*Buy a copy of Ben Goldacre’s wonderful book Bad Science to read for yourself how far journalists will go to get the positive results they required to perpetuate the MRSA (Methicillan Resistant Staphylococcus aureus) hoax from a few years back.

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