On 31st May 2015 the Independent on Sunday newspaper ran a story claiming that ‘thousands’ of teenage girls were being left with debilitating illnesses (including POTS – postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome) after their routine HPV vaccination. The story was poorly researched, and misinterpreted data the journalists had obtained from the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Authority (MHRA).
Under a Freedom of Information request the MHRA said that they had received over 8,000 adverse drug reaction reports following HPV vaccinations since the vaccine was introduced in 2009. However, what the Independent article failed to point out was that the reports were almost all expected events after vaccination of teenage girls (in other words things that are likely to happen when a group of school girls queue up for a vaccine, like fainting and anxiety attacks, and common but inconsequential vaccine reactions like having a sore arm.) The July 2015 meeting of the UK Commission on Human Medicines (see page 3) recognised that 'HPV vaccines could be associated with some side effects, such as redness at the injection site and transient fever but noted that these appeared to be similar in frequency and type to those that had been reported with other vaccines routinely given to adolescents and adults.' Furthermore, the journalists did not make it clear that the reporting of an adverse event after vaccination does not prove a link with the vaccine. It’s like saying that bananas cause road traffic accidents because a few people have eaten bananas on the day they have a car crash. Many, many millions of dose of HPV vaccine have been given around the world and despite careful scientific study no signal of concern has been identified.
The bad science behind the Independent article was discussed on Radio 4’s “More or Less” on 5th June 2015. You can listen to the discussion here if you start at 8 minutes 15 seconds into the programme.
Two experienced UK child health professionals (Dr David Elliman, Consultant in Community Child Health, Whittington Health NHS Trust and Dr Helen Bedford, Senior Lecturer, Institute of Child Health, University College of London) have made this response on the Sense about Science website:
‘The fact that an illness follows soon after a vaccine, however frequently, does not mean that it is caused by the vaccine. To see whether this is the case it is necessary to look at how common the condition occurs in people who have not had the vaccine as well as those who have had the vaccine. Without doing this, it is not possible to even suggest, let alone prove that a vaccine is the cause of the illness in question.’
A spokesperson for the MHRA said (also via the Sense about Science website):
‘The greater number of suspected side effect reports for HPV vaccine, which are not necessarily proven to be caused by the vaccine, does not necessarily mean that it is any less safe than other vaccines. The vast majority of reports for HPV vaccine relate to known risks of vaccination that are well-described in the available product information. MHRA has no concerns over the total number of reports for the HPV vaccine, and the expected benefits in preventing illness and death from HPV infection outweigh the known risks.’
If the number of girls vaccinated falls as a result of a misleading story about HPV vaccine safety, the future health of women will be compromised and the sad result will be a rise in cervical cancer in the future. At present cervical cancer kills around 1,000 women every year in the UK alone.
UPDATE - December 2015
The European Medicines Agency (EMA) has completed a thorough review of the safety of the HPV vaccine; no concerns were identified. Read the full EMA report
In December 2012 the MHRA (Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Authority) published a 4-year safety report on Cervarix, the HPV vaccine used in the UK until September 2012. This included a breakdown of all the adverse events reported after HPV vaccination. Read the MHRA report here.