FEMFACTS
06 Mar 2019

Debunking the lie that the HPV vaccine doesn’t save lives

Dangerous misinformation about the HPV vaccine continues to circulate worldwide, discouraging women from getting a safe and efficient protection against a deadly disease.

Guest Mavens
Linh Nguyen NewsMavens, Europe
Debunking the lie that the HPV vaccine doesn’t save lives - NewsMavens
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Cervical cancer is the fourth most common cancer in the world and it’s killing millions of women and girls worldwide (according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), 270,000 women died from the disease in 2012 alone). The disease is linked to Human papillomavirus (HPV), usually transmitted through sexual contact.

The HPV vaccination prevents millions of women from getting the virus and the potentially deadly disease it causes. However, it’s also high up on the antivaccination movement’s “smear list”.

WHAT’S THE CLAIM?

One of the rhetorical moves of this medically regressive movement is to demonize and diminish the value of vaccinations by arguing they’re just profit-makers for “Big Pharma”. In one such case, this was done by weakening the link between the HPV (human papillomavirus) virus and cervical cancer. Among many who were quick to spread this claim, was Irish journalist Gemma O’Doherty.

This is the claim as it appeared on her Twitter profile, with an impressive 24,500 followers:

These posts have sparked reactions from general practitioners, sexual health specialists and women living with cervical cancer and criticism for spreading misinformation about the vaccine.

O’Doherty has also been peddling claims from the book on her Facebook page, offering them as facts to her 18,293 followers on this social network.

The book in question is among the latest additions to the “literature” of the antivaccination movement. The HPV Vaccine on Trial: Seeking Justice for a Generation Betrayed is authored by Mary Holland, Kim Mack Rosenberg and Eileen Iorio, neither of whom is a physician or a scientist. Holland is on the faculty of NYU School of Law, Rosenberg is the President of the “National Autism Association” and author of another book on autism published by Skyhorse Publishing. And Iorio, according to sparse information found on the internet, is a graduate of the Institute for Integrative Nutrition, an online school based in New York, which teaches “alternative medicine.” The book has been a bestseller on Amazon under the section of “Preventive Medicine.”

The claim referenced by O’Doherty is lifted from Chapter 4 in the book, with the title ‘Who’s Really at Risk for [sic] Cervical Cancer?’, where the authors claim:

“To sell HPV vaccines, the story had to be about cancer. The marketing tactic to emphasise that almost all cervical cancers are related to HPV has worked...Even persistent HPV infection alone, however, appears to be insufficient to lead to cervical cancer.”

It’s usually sound advice that most conspiracists should be ignored, but anti-vaxxers require particular attention because their misinformation has a potentially harmful societal impact. The most egregious example is that of Andrew Wakefield, the notoriously discredited former British doctor who wrote a fraudulent paper in 1998 claiming a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. In the wake of his study, MMR vaccination rates dropped sharply in the UK, leading to an increase in measles.

WHAT ARE THE FACTS?

Before we even get into the claims of HPV Vaccine on Trial, two points are reasons enough to strongly doubt the book’s credibility.

The first is that its publisher is Skyhorse Publishing, which has a reputation for promoting pseudoscience around vaccines. In 2011, Skyhorse published a book by discredited doctor Andrew Wakefield, who has now rebranded himself as an anti-vaccination activist. Skyhorse’s owner Tony Lyons has even spoken about his commitment to promoting the anti-vaccine narrative.

The second is that one of its praised reviews comes from Dr. Luc Montagnier, the Nobel Laureate who discovered HIV. Usually, a Nobel award to your name suggests authority, but Montagnier has contracted what’s known on the internet as “Nobel Disease” -- the phenomenon in which nobel-prize winning scientists promote pseudoscience later on in life. These days, Montagnier has embraced concepts such as homeopathy, and is a big critic of vaccination, having claimed that there’s a link between vaccines and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (article in French). The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has proven there isn’t.

Now back to the book’s claim on “the story about cancer”. The evidence for a link between HPV infection and cervical cancer is so strong and well researched that in 2008 Harald zur Hausen won a Nobel Prize for his discovery that the human papilloma viruses causes cervical cancer.

When looking at the references of HPV Vaccine on Trial, there are some legitimate studies but the authors are warping facts to highlight a particular story. In this case, it’s magnifying the point that most HPV infections don’t lead to cervical cancers to diminish its risk and significance, so that they can sell the “Big Pharma” conspiracy.

It’s indeed true that HPV is extremely common worldwide and most infections cause no symptoms. Yet though it’s fortunate that most cases of HPV infection don’t lead to cervical cancer, virtually all cervical cancers are linked to HPV. The American Cancer Society says the virus is “the most important risk factor for cervical cancer” and the estimates of how many cases of cervical cancer are caused by HPV go from 93% to 99.7%.

There are more than 100 types of HPV, out of which at least 14 are likely to cause cervical cancer: WHO data shows that just two virus types are responsible for 70% of all cervical cancer cases. And because HPV is common, it means virtually everyone is at risk, making HPV a big deal.

To further diminish the significance of this link, as well as the HPV vaccination, the authors say that pap screening alone is enough to prevent cervical cancer. As this study revealed, it’s not:

"Although Pap testing has reduced the incidence of cervical cancer, particularly in industrialized nations, it is an imperfect approach to prevention with only moderate sensitivity, and cervical cancer rates remain unacceptably high.

The same study also states that “pap screening cannot prevent genital warts and anal cancer.” Screening is not enough because HPV vaccination prevents more than just cervical cancer. For example, in Australia, rates of genital warts in women dropped 61% when HPV vaccine was introduced.

In addition to its lack of scientific knowledge, the claim that HPV-cancer link is nothing more than a “marketing tactic of Big Pharma” also lacks business acumen. When looking at the pharmaceutical industry as a whole, vaccines aren’t that profitable because preventative drugs make less money. Drugs that treat chronic diseases which people take often, compared to a one-off vaccine shot, bring in significantly more revenue for pharmaceuticals. Even so, just because something makes money isn’t a legitimate reason to discredit its science, because if we follow that argument, we should question how profitable the "alternative medicine" industry is despite selling products that are not based on scientific evidence.  

CONCLUSION

The importance of debunking anti-vaxxers isn’t necessarily to change their minds -- often they’re already made up. It’s to educate others who are still on the fence about vaccines, before it may be too late. When it comes to the HPV vaccine, the more people believe anti-vaxxers, the more women are condemned to the likelihood of cervical cancer. We rate these dangerous claims as pseudoscience.

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