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The good news about the HPV vaccine was actually bad news

What’s not to like about the HPV vaccine? Not only does it protect women against cervical cancer, at least according to the package insert, but it also reduces the risk of a preterm birth.

Researchers from New Zealand made the discovery when they analyzed the records of 35,646 births to first-time mothers. The women who had the vaccine were less likely to have a premature or still birth or suffer from preeclampsia; overall, the HPV (human papillomavirus) jab reduced the risk of complications by around 27 percent.1

This was marvelous news for a vaccine that parents have been reticent to give to their preteen daughters since its launch around 17 years ago. Tales of appalling reactions—including neurological problems and sudden death—have kept families away from the jab, and the take-up has rarely risen above 60 percent of the targeted population of girls (and, more recently, boys) aged 11 and 12.

Keen to see a wider acceptance of the HPV jab, organizations were quick to broadcast the good news about safer births. The Cancer Council from New South Wales in Australia breathlessly announced on its website, “As well as preventing cervical cancer, these findings show the vaccine might also play a significant role in reducing the rates of adverse pregnancy outcomes and improving the quality of life for many women and children around the world.”

The paper has also been cited numerous times by other researchers and has become the warp and weft of the HPV vaccine research landscape.

The only fly in the ointment is that it isn’t true. Worse, the very reverse is the case: the vaccine increases the risk of preterm birth. The researchers had inverted the data sets, and so a negative became a positive, suggesting the vaccine might even increase the risk of preterm birth.

And that’s not all. When the researchers approached the medical journal Vaccine about this little difficulty, one of them, Beverley Lawton of the Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, revealed for the first time that she had financial ties to CSL, a pharmaceutical company that owns the rights to the HPV vaccine in Australia and New Zealand. The company had paid her “educational and conference grants.”

The editors of the journal weren’t impressed. “It is of serious concern to the Editor-in-Chief that the conflict-of-interest statement was only added to the paper by the authors after acceptance and was not made visible to the editor or reviewers prior to acceptance,” the editorial board thundered next to the giant retraction stamp that filled the page.

What had gone wrong? The error was picked up by a reader, and when the researchers took another look at their analysis, they discovered the data sets had been inverted—not by them, they said, but by an unnamed “inexperienced person,” apparently.

When the researchers asked to see the raw data sets again, the source—the New Zealand government’s health department—refused to release them, explained senior researcher Noelyn Hung of the University of Otago Dunedin School of Medicine. “It has been a wholly frustrating and embarrassing process that I never ever want to go through again,” she said.

But the story of the HPV vaccine has been tainted with rumors of medical fraud ever since it was approved for use in 2007 in the US. Even the studies that did see the light of day paint a worrying picture, including a major study that discovered it quadrupled the death rate in a group of 2,881 women who received it, compared to a similar number given a placebo.2

American law firm Miller & Zois, which represents families harmed by the Gardasil HPV vaccine, has reported a doubling in class action suits against the manufacturer, Merck, since the beginning of the year.

The vaccine is touted to protect against a cancer that declined by 50 percent from the 1970s to the early 2000s, before the HPV vaccine was introduced. The trend continues with a 25 percent fall in cases since 1990. Today, cervical cancer makes up less than 1 percent of new cancer cases every year.

When parents weigh the risks of the vaccine against the chances of their daughters developing cervical cancer, it’s no wonder they’re refusing it. That’s not “anti-vax”; it’s just common sense.

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Article Topics: HPV, HPV vaccines
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