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2010: human papillomavirus (HPV)
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Humun Papillomavirus (HPV)
Jamie Thunder
On the 28th of September 2009 in Coventry, UK, a 14-year-old girl died. Two hours earlier, she had received the controversial human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine at her school. What happened next was an abject lesson in how the media can and does distort and lie in pursuit of an agenda.
The HPV vaccine protects against infections that can cause cervical cancer. In the UK we use Cervarix, but in the States it’s Gardasil, which also protects against genital warts. Since September 2008 all 12- and 13-year-olds have been vaccinated in the UK, and there’s a catch-up campaign to vaccinate 13- to 18-year-olds.
There has, however, been criticism of the vaccine from some people. You see, according to Wikipedia, around 70% of instances of cervical cancer are caused by HPV types 16 and 18 being sexually transmitted. This has led to the vaccine being derided – both in the UK and the US – as a ‘promiscuity drug’ that will lead to more awkward, incompetent teenage sex.
That’s right. These people actually believe that there are teenage girls out there who desperately want sex but are waiting for a cervical cancer jab first. Chlamydia, herpes, pregnancy... apparently all of no concern to these would-be nymphos who just want a little prick.
So that gives you an idea of the level of reasoning we’ll be dealing with here. The others who oppose the jab are the anti-vaccination brigade, who whipped up such misleading hysteria a few years back about the MMR jab. They think, supported by the odd renegade doctor, that vaccinations are deadly and that they have The Truth, hidden from us by a callous government in cahoots with Big Pharma. We don’t really need to pay them much attention.
Anyway, back to September 28th. Or rather, September 29th, and the first print media reactions to the death. As you might expect, all of the newspapers’ headlines had a link between the death and the vaccine, along the lines of ’14-year-old girl dies after having HPV vaccine’. At first glance this seems a little irresponsible, because there had been no autopsy performed on the girl so far, so to imply a causal relationship was premature. However, I’m not really sure how else this could have been reported.
The fact that a 14-year-old girl died isn’t news in itself. It’s the context in which the death took place – shortly after receiving the vaccination – that made it newsworthy. So if they were going to report it, newspapers couldn’t avoid that implication, however unfortunate. And they had to report it, because if it had turned out that she had died because of the vaccination, they’d have been left standing. And that just won’t do in 24-7medialand.
But although the headline frames the story, the content is also pretty important. And here’s where the real differences between newspapers come in. Some of the better newspapers reported the possibility that it was a one-off allergic reaction, or that there could have been an underlying medical condition. Some of the worse ones didn’t, and just gave information on the side-effects and quoted a ‘campaign group for safe vaccinations’. They’re the anti-science nutters to you and me.
One newspaper – the Daily Mail, if you were wondering – managed to include the phrase ‘rogue batch’ in scare quotes in the headline, despite the fact that the only person in the article who used that phrase was, er, the journalist himself. Brilliant.
That’s the initial coverage then – not great, in some cases shameful, but could have been (a bit) worse. At the very least, it was just about understandable. But let’s see what happened next.
On September 30th, the BBC reported that the NHS Trust for the area of the girl who died had said that the jab was ‘unlikely’ to have killed her. It also reported that she had a ‘serious underlying health condition’. Keep in mind for the rest of this article that this condition was a malignant tumour in her chest.
You see, there’s nothing that scaremongering journalists hate more than the words ‘serious underlying health condition’. It gives the lie to their attempts to stoke the fires of fear, and suggests that maybe – just maybe – the latest OH NO WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE THINK OF THE CHILDREN worry is a bit less concerning than was first thought. Fortunately for these unprincipled hacks, there are a few techniques you can employ to lessen the damage to your original story.
One of these is to cast doubt on the new fact by using words like ‘claim’ and ‘could’ to make headlines like ‘Health Trust claims cervical cancer jab girl could have been killed by 'underlying health condition'’. I see what you did there!
Alternatively, you can simply ignore the new fact and stuff it in at the bottom of the article, using a headline like ‘Parents’ revolt after girl dies in cancer jab horror’. Of course, this ‘revolt’ is highly likely to have been linked to your poor initial reporting, but you don’t need to mention that.
Follow this up with a few days of ‘chaos as cancer jab withdrawn’ stories, and you have a lovely little anti-government narrative built up. Incidentally, the Daily Mail in the UK is opposed to the vaccine because it could ‘encourage promiscuity’ (haha). The Daily Mail in Ireland, however, where the vaccine hasn’t been introduced, blames the Irish government for putting lives at risk by not offering the jab.
But every narrative, as we know, needs a climax. And the climax in this tale came not from the Daily Mail, but from its mid-market rival the Sunday Express. On October 4th, four days after the existence of an underlying health condition was revealed, the headline screamed: ‘JAB ‘AS DEADLY AS THE CANCER’: Cervical drug expert hits out as new doubts raised over death of teenager’.
There are some headlines you just know are wrong. Especially when they only appear in one newspaper. This is one of them. So, how did the Sunday Express bag this sensational scoop? Had it secured an exclusive interview? Had it examined the existing scientific literature and noticed some disturbing evidence?
No. It had misquoted – hideously misquoted, as we’ll see – the views of a scientist who had helped in some trials of Cervarix and Gardasil. And used that as a front page. And pretended that’s journalism. Here is the first paragraph of the Express’ story:
“THE cervical cancer vaccine may be riskier and more deadly than the cancer it is designed to prevent, a leading expert who developed the drug has warned. She also claimed the jab would do nothing to reduce the rates of cervical cancer in the UK. Speaking exclusively to the Sunday Express, Dr Diane Harper, who was involved in the clinical trials of the controversial drug Cervarix, said the jab was being “over-marketed” and parents should be properly warned about the potential side effects.”
And here is Dr Harper’s response when contacted by the Guardian (another UK newspaper) about the alleged comments:
“I did not say that Cervarix was as deadly as cervical cancer. I did not say that Cervarix could be riskier or more deadly than cervical cancer. I did not say that Cervarix was controversial, I stated that Cervarix is not a ‘controversial drug’. I did not ‘hit out’ – I was contacted by the press for facts. And this was not an exclusive interview.”
Stunning, isn’t it? Just about every single bit of that first paragraph, from the important (Cervarix is as deadly as cancer) to the unimportant (it’s an exclusive interview) is wrong. Wrong wrong wrong. Of course, this wouldn’t matter if people didn’t read the Express and believe it to be a reputable organ, but they do.
You’d hope that by now people would realise that you can’t believe everything you read in any newspaper. And there are people like that – this article was based in part on information collected by bloggers, and by the Guardian’s excellent science-in-the-media writer Ben Goldacre. But very few people who regularly read the Sunday Express will read these accounts, and they’ll be left with a fear of vaccinations that could lead to many more deaths.
You’d also maybe hope that journalists would have the decency and the self-respect to make sure that even if they have to hype things up from time to time they get the facts right. And again, some do. But some don’t, and they tend to be the ones who are read the most, because their world is much more extreme and exciting.
Shame, really.
This article can be found on p26 in Issue 1 of Vhcle magazine.
Jamie Dance Thunder (Yes, that's his real name.) An English Language graduate from Cardiff University, now studying for an MA in Investigative Journalism at City University, London. He hopes his interests of bad puns and current affairs will help him get a decent job on a newspaper, or failing that make him that guy at parties who makes terrible topical jokes and is the only one who laughs.