The Toronto Star’s HPV Reporting is a Disaster

The Star's reporting downplayed or ignored basic facts and failed in its journalistic responsibility to cover matters of health and science objectively, or at least competently. It should be a future study in bad health reporting.

Last week, the Toronto Star published an investigation under the headline HPV vaccine Gardasil has a dark side. In the piece, reporters David Bruser and Jesse McLean suggest that 60 young Canadian women may have been harmed by HPV vaccinations, and that the women were not informed of any risks beforehand.

The problem is that the Star‘s reporting downplayed or ignored basic facts and failed in its journalistic responsibility to cover matters of health and science objectively, or at least competently. It should be a future study in bad health reporting.

The Star’s response to criticism has been even worse.

As a doctor, I pointed out the problems with the Star‘s reporting in a blog post that went viral.

Here’s a shorter, less technical rundown of how they screwed up.

First, the Star makes its case largely on the basis of anecdotal evidence. Bruser and McLean take whole paragraphs to detail and describe horrible medical illnesses suffered by young women who recieved the HPV vaccine Gardasil. But there is no credible evidence linking the cases to the vaccine.

It takes Bruser and McLean 11 paragraphs to admit this, and it’s the first time they deviate from anecdotes: “there is no conclusive evidence showing the vaccine caused a death or illness.” This is pittance when you take into account the Star’s presentation: the facts are buried, there are photographs of ill and deceased women and a grieving mother. And let’s not forget the headline touting a completely unsubstantiated “dark side.”

General readers aren’t drawn to statements by faceless Health Canada officials, not when the Star presents them with a mother holding a photo of her dead daughter and a young woman with a nasogastric tube. The paper’s editors should know better than to distort facts with presentation, and yet they chose sensationalism over truth.

Then there’s the Star‘s medical expert, Dr. Diane Harper. Harper has worked on several Merck-sponsored trials of Gardasil and is qualified to speak about the drug. However, she’s also worked for Gardasil’s competitor, Cervarix (which she has written is safe and effective), and this was not disclosed. In medical journals, industry disclosures are expected. Why would the Star hold itself to a lesser standard?

Bruser and McLean never quote Harper as saying Gardasil is dangerous, by the way. The quotes attributed to her acknowledge the “pain and issues” that the women profiled have suffered. But if the Star ‘s expert couldn’t verify that the HPV vaccine is harmful as its reporters imply, what was the point of publishing the article and its misrepresentations at all?

Now stay with me, because this next problem is a tad more technical. The Star says it has analysed data on vaccine injury and Gardasil taken from the vaccine adverse events reporting system (VAERS). In its analysis, the paper claims to have found “thousands of suspected cases, and over a hundred deaths.”

This is a gross abuse of VAERS, which is simply raw data that the Star‘s reporters are unqualified to interpret… and it shows. Crucially, they neglect to mention that the VAERS data set had been analyzed by the Centers for Disease Control in 2009 and published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. None of the serious adverse events or deaths were found to be vaccine related.

I invite the Star to publish its own statistical analysis for review by the experts if the paper intends to stand by it.

Lastly, the Star also selectively relays international news to fit its story. They mention Japan putting its vaccination program on hold because of safety concerns without mentioning the amazing success of Australia’s HPV vaccination program.

And now we get to the Star’s response.

After detailing all of the above and more, the Star did not counter my criticisms, invite me to write a contrary op-ed, clarify Dr. Harper’s statements or provide data to refute the volumes of evidence within the scientific community that support HPV vaccine safety.

But they didn’t ignore me, either! They sicked one of their leading columnists, Heather Mallick, on me. Mallick wrote an op-ed insisting the article was about the girls not getting enough information about vaccine risks to make informed decisions. That doesn’t come across to me as the “dark side” of the HPV vaccine.

Oh, and here’s what Ms. Mallick had to say about yours truly:

Here’s a tip: don’t read a website run by a rural doctor whose slogan is “wielding the lasso of truth.”

Let me restate this because it is important: a columinst at Canada’s largest newspaper thought to use rural as a slur to attack a board certified OB/GYN who held a fellowship in infectious diseases and regularly treats women who have pain due to surgery and radiation from cervical, vaginal, and anal HPV related cancer as unqualified to write intelligently about HPV vaccines.

That speaks for itself, I believe.

The Star‘s article may have contained a few statements on vaccine safety to push back against its poor reporting.

But to have an expert who never directly supports your claims? To focus on anecdotes that offer no credible support for your misleading headline? To never discuss the large body of literature that supports the safety of the HPV vaccine? To ignore the success of Australian’s vaccination program? And to misuse the VAERS data?

Well, the Toronto Star seems pretty close to the newspaper equivalent of the Oprah episode where Jenny McCarthy was given an hour to flaunt her theories on vaccine induced injury and autism and the CDC was given a statement read by a dispassionate host.

The Star‘s article could do considerable damage. I don’t believe anyone who read it who is contemplating an HPV vaccine for themselves or their child is going to remember the short statements about vaccine safety: no, they will remember the photograph of the anguished mother or the girl with the nasogastric tube. I know I do.

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