Two days after I published a post on this blog about the importance of using data to report on medicine, the Toronto Star published – what the paper called – an investigation into Gardasil, which is one of the vaccines used to prevent the human papillomavirus.
While the Star’s story included medical experts defending the vaccine, the paper relied on anecdotal reports to support a hypothesis that the drug has a “dark side” that includes undisclosed complications, including death.
As I wrote in my post on February 3, journalists have a responsibility to prevent people from being harmed by incorrect information. In this case, one can make a strong argument that the Star’s failure to adequately report its story may lead to future cancers and even deaths.
The human papillomavirus – better known as HPV – is a sexually transmitted infection responsible for a number of cancers and other complications, including genital warts. Most importantly, HPV is responsible for the vast majority of cervical cancers.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says on its website that almost all adults who are sexually active will be infected with at least one strain of HPV during their lives. Most infections will clear up on their own, but about one in 10 will persist.
There are two vaccines currently approved to protect against HPV in the U.S. Cervarix, which is manufactured by GlaxoSmithKline, and Gardasil, which is manufactured by Merck. Gardasil is the only vaccine approved for use in males, who can also get HPV and suffer from its complications.
While the CDC says the vaccines are safe and effective, the agency reports some people experience side effects ranging from pain at the injection site, headache, nausea, dizziness and fainting.
The U.S. recommends vaccination for boys and girls from ages 11 through 12 years, and teens who were not previously vaccinated. Specifically, females can get the series of three shots through age 26 and males through age 21. Gay men, bisexual men and other men who have sex with men can also receive the vaccine through age 26 years.
If people reading the Star’s story are persuaded to not be vaccinated, some may go on to develop cancers that would have been prevented by the vaccine. Additionally, some of those cancers may ultimately cause people’s deaths.
While the Star – as of right now – did not retract its story, the paper’s publisher said the publication failed in its job. Additionally, the paper’s public editor Kathy English wrote a comprehensive report on the matter on Friday.
English places a lot of blame on the story’s presentation, such as the accompanying headline and pictures. While those elements didn’t help, the article itself would lead a reasonable reader to assume the vaccine may cause serious complications.
The Star already took some steps to reduce the harm its article caused, including admitting the paper failed in its responsibilities and adding several notes to the online publication. My hope is that the Star will report the story again, except with a much more critical eye.
On a personal note: I think it’s important to say that I’m currently in the middle of receiving the HPV vaccine – as recommended by the CDC.
Andrew Seaman is the chair of the Society’s ethics committee.