Today the publisher of the Toronto Star, Canada’s largest newspaper, wrote that the article “A wonder drug’s dark side” will be removed from the online site. This is 15 days after it was originally published. It obviously still lives on in print and in screen shots, but now at least no anti-vaccine groups will be able to use the article in links.
The retraction is the right thing and while I’m bothered it took 15 days I am chalking that up to the Star’s investigative team actually doing the research they neglected the first time ’round the barn. I say that because if they had actually researched HPV vaccination they never would have led with “A wonder drug’s dark side.” After all a drug that has the same side effect profile, the exact same side effect profile, as placebo can’t really have a dark side.
But delay aside, I am more troubled by the retraction’s carefully walking the line of being a real apology and a real retraction (or as a doctor friend of mine said, “Even in defeat they didn’t admit defeat”):
No drug is absolutely safe for all people in all conditions of health. Now that tens of millions of young women have taken the vaccine, it is conceivable that very rare reactions may emerge that weren’t identified earlier.
All vaccines, including Gardasil, have side-effects. The better known they are, the more safely the vaccine can be deployed.
This is what the article sought to achieve as well as to note that acknowledged risks are not always properly communicated
People who know more about journalism might see this as trying to appease some egos in the newsroom, but all I can do is view this statement as a doctor who knows the data and it smacks of the same issues in the original article. Unscientific what ifs and non-existent communication issues. Doctors and nurses can’t possibly communicate side effects that don’t exist. What exactly does the Toronto Star think we should be telling our patients, that 2.3% women will have side effects, which is the exact same rate as placebo?
And then there is the “it is conceivable that very rare reactions may emerge,” which keeps up the doubt narrative. How “conceivable” is this risk that it is worth putting on the front page of the largest newspaper and then defending? The massive wealth of data on Gardasil safety (and much of it not from Merck, the manufacturer) includes almost 1 million girls in Denmark and Sweden, the 80% or more of pre teens, teens and young adults in Australia who have received the vaccine, and the ongoing long-term post marketing surveillance of over 360,000 doses in the United States and has yet to identify risk. Thus the Star is alluding to a theoretical risk that must be less than 1 in 1 million. It’s a bit like writing an article on the dark side of shark attacks, knowing there is a 1 in 3,700,000 chance of being killed by a shark in one’s lifetime. Except the title would be, “Shark attacks, the dark side of swimming in Canadian lakes.” Falling back on “anything is possible” is sloppy.
So the question I want answered (and yes, I know I’m a mere rural doctor) is how did this happen? Since the Star isn’t forthcoming, let’s assemble the forensic evidence:
Problem #1: Failure to investigate sources
One of the leading stories from a girl who was diagnosed by a chiropractor and had chelation therapy, which is the DEFINITION of dangerous snake oil. Did the reporters not know how to Google? Not know that chelation is not recommended for any vaccine adverse events? I mean if you are an investigative reporter you investigate things, including (and probably especially) the motives of people coming forward with claims of injury.
The imbalance of how the anecdotes vs the science is a distraction from the real issue of not actually investigating the anecdotes. I’m going to assume that an anti-vaccine agenda didn’t play into the failure to follow-up on the sources, but the cynic is me is left to wonder as no explanation has been forthcoming who is friends with whom?
Problem #2: Transparency is for everyone except the Toronto Star
The publisher, Cruickshank, stated on the CBC that “doctors” brought these girls forward, but no one ever says who these doctors are. I suspect if they were respected allergists or rheumatologists or infectious diseases experts then there would be no retraction. However, if the diagnosis of vaccine injury is coming from chiropractors (or really anyone) offering chelation therapy then, well, maybe you had such a hard on for the story you didn’t really look into their credentials?
Problem #3: Their medical expert fell through
Dr. Harper, the medical expert, has written that Gardasil’s competitor is “safe and effective” and her work with the competing vaccine was never disclosed. Didn’t the reporters not wonder at all about that? She also never actually said that Gardasil was the cause of injury or that it is dangerous. She alludes to possible long-term safety concerns, but her statement is vague enough as written that it could be interpreted by an OB/GYN (i.e. me) as vaccine safety, neglecting Pap smears, or waning immunity (which his really not a scientifically sound argument, but people still make it). The Star could easily have stood by their story if Harper’s statements had been further clarified to say “yes, vaccine-related injury.”
Of course I haven’t even touched on getting a second opinion. I spoke with an investigator on the same study as Dr. Harper who did not share her concerns. I spoke with one of the heads of vaccine research at Kaiser Northern California who did not share Dr. Harper’s concerns. I’m not a reporter and that took me all of 20 minutes to gather that information. Yes, I’m connected but I have a full-time job and it isn’t chasing down sources.
Problem #4: Not understanding VAERS
The vaccine adverse events reporting system is contaminated data that requires abstraction by very trained individuals. Just to prove how bad it is one doctor infamously reported that a vaccine turned him into the Incredible Hulk and oner person reported being turned into Wonder Woman (note, vaccine injury is not how I became Wonder Woman). Doctors, lawyers, disgruntled patients – anyone can enter an adverse event.
I am guessing the star’s reporters didn’t understand VAERS and possibly their medical expert or the doctors who brought these stories forwards didn’t tell them otherwise.
Diagnosis: death by confirmation bias
The Star was not wrong to look into these claims. Drug companies do hide their data and produce biased work, but of course selective work isn’t just the purview of drug companies. Anti-vaccine groups fund research and that bias isn’t disclosed. If your source of money is someone who thinks vaccines are like the Holocaust and you are researching aluminum in vaccines and your hypothesis is that this is harmful then to me that screams conflict of interest. And then sometimes researchers are less than honest simply because they want a “big get” or are desperate for tenure. So yes, by all means talk with researchers. Take the data apart and investigate. Ask a lot of people and demand answers. Find out how everyone profits. Everyone. Unfortunately, that wasn’t what happened with the Gardasil piece.
The Star’s investigative team should take a tip from a story in their own paper about a spiritual healer who promised miracles for money
“It’s often the people who are the most desperate for help and they can’t see a solution…so they go to these so-called holy men looking for a miraculous intervention”
There are still a lot of unanswered questions…
Why do people (medical professionals included) refuse to believe the mountain of research about the vaccine’s safety?
Why are anti vaccine groups funding research at a The University of British Columba, research that has been discredited by the WHO? The researchers and UBC make claims that all research is valid and they aren’t responsible for the conclusions people draw, yet these researchers apparently spoke at a vaccine “safety” conference alongside people like Andrew Wakefield.
Why are chiropractors diagnosing and treating vaccine injury?
Why are parents willing to subject their children to dangerous and completely unindicated chelation therapy?
How much money do doctors who offer chelation therapy for HPV “vaccine injury” make from this therapy?
There are real dark sides to Gardasil and the Toronto Star missed every one of them.