Following the Daily Express’s spectacularly misleadingly-headlined article on the death of Natalie Morton (PARENTS’ REVOLT AFTER GIRL DIES IN CANCER JAB HORROR – a headline written, believe it or not, after it became apparent from a preliminary post mortem that Natalie Morton had actually suffered from an underlying health problem), the Sunday Express have surpassed themselves by writing a new article on the HPV vaccine. This article, despite being written after further facts on the sad death of Natalie Morton were made available, is headlined JAB ‘AS DEADLY AS THE CANCER’.*
We now know that Natalie Morton had a tumour. Despite this, the Sunday Express include a picture of the schoolgirl and caption it thus: “Natalie Morton died shortly after being given a cervical cancer vaccine jab”, implying that a connection exists despite the facts in their possession. While this is disingenuous, it actually gets worse as I read on.
Dr Diane Harper, portrayed as a “leading expert who developed the drug” in the introduction to the article, is alleged by the Sunday Express to have given them the following opinions:
the jab [is] being “over-marketed” and parents should be properly warned about the potential side effects
Authorities in the UK should be on the alert because its sister vaccine, Gardasil, used in America, has already been associated with 32 death
the risks – “small but real” – could be worse than the risk of developing cancer itself
All this jab will do is prevent girls getting some abnormalities associated with cervical cancer which can be treated. It will not decrease cervical cancer rates at all. Parents need to know this and that in a small number of cases there are serious side effects
Having been quoted in a previous story in the Daily Mail as saying that the HPV vaccination programme was a “mass experiment in public health”, Evidence Matters made contact with Dr Harper and she made the following comments:
I remain a vaccine supporter; and am grateful that GSK and merck have developed the vaccines.
The autopsy report clearly indicates that Cervarix had no part in Natalie’s death
It remains to be seen whether Dr Harper will provide further clarification of her position in light of the Sunday Express article* and I note that the article seemed to provide a summary of Dr Harper’s views in most cases, with only a few direct quotes. For now, I shall comment simply on this view attributed to Dr Harper by the Sunday Express: “the risks – “small but real” – could be worse than the risk of developing cancer itself”; on the face of it, this statement seems to me to be almost certainly incorrect. Nobody has died in the UK because they received the Cervarix vaccine. Hundreds of women die every year of cervical cancer. The way the Express is reporting on the HPV vaccine, it almost seems as if they would be happy to see women die unnecessarily from a cancer caused by infection with HPV.
It gets even worse. The Sunday Express also print the views of Dr Richard Halvorsen. Having been allowed column inches in the Daily Mail and airtime on Radio 4′s Today programme, the Sunday Express become the latest media outlet to invite comment from Dr Halvorsen. The Express article notes that “Post mortem results last week blamed Natalie’s death on a rare cancer but Dr Richard Halvorsen, author of The Truth About Vaccines, said…” [My italics.]
One minute Natalie is an apparently healthy girl, she has the vaccine and within two hours she is dead. We are told she had a terrible cancer inside her that killed her but this is implausible. If you have cancer you have symptoms. Clearly public health doctors are desperate to turn the debate away from the vaccine as a possible cause.
I find this scaremongering and conspiracy theorising sickening. Characterising the doctors involved in the case as being ‘desperate to cover up’ a non-existent link to the HPV vaccine is a despicable slur.
What of Halvorsen’s contentions that “We are told she had a terrible cancer inside her that killed her but this is implausible. If you have cancer you have symptoms”? This abstract comments on lipomatous hypertrophy of the interatrial septum, which “…represents 0.6% of all benign cardiac tumours. Generally asymptomatic, it frequently constitutes an incidental post mortem finding. The disorder may at times lead to a pumping deficit associated to congestive heart failure or determine an abnormal heart rhythm leading even to sudden death.” [Note: this type of cardiac tumour is rare in yong people. An unusual case is described here: link.] If a benign, asymptomatic cardiac tumour can lead to sudden death, is it really so implausible that a schoolgirl could die suddenly due to an asymptomatic tumour? This paper has an abstract which discusses papillary fibroelastomas, “a rare form of benign cardiac neoplasm”:
While the majority of these lesions are asymptomatic and found incidentally via echocardiography or cardiac catheterization, those occurring on left-sided structures may become clinically important producing symptoms of syncope, angina, myocardial infarction, and sudden death.
Cardiac rhabdomyoma? According to the abstract of this paper, “The primary cardiac tumors are [unusual], the incidence varies in all the ages between 0.005 to 0.05%. In pediatrics patients the incidence is 0.27%. The more frequent tumors during the childhood are the cardiac rhabdomyomas. These tumors are considered benigns. The clinical expression is wide, in the most the cases, the patients are asymptomatic and are detected by murmurs. In the prenatal age are manifested by arrhythmias or hydrops fetalis. The neonates and children may be show cardiac arrhythmias, low cardiac index and sudden cardiac death.”
It seems that, while rare, it is not implausible that an asymptomatic tumour could cause sudden death. So Dr Richard Halvorsen would appear to be wrong on this point. What of his second part of the quoted remark that “if you have cancer you have symptoms”? Well, this is clearly untrue. There are thousands of results on Pubmed for the search terms asymptomatic and cancer (over 16,000 hits – of which over 2,000 are free full text and nearly 3,000 are reviews). If you use Google to search for the phrase “asymptomatic cancer”, you will find articles titled “Estimating Distribution of the Age of Onset of Detectable Asymptomatic Cancer” and “Finding cancer in asymptomatic people. Estimating the benefits, costs and risks” among the 12,100 pages that Google claims to have found. I would suggest that if Halvorsen truly believes that “if you have cancer you have symptoms” then he must be rather ignorant to have come to this conclusion – and either lazy or foolish to have spouted his ill-informed opinions on the subject in a medium that reaches thousands of people without having even attempted a cursory search using Google or Pubmed.
Remarkably, it seems that Halvorsen’s assertions that Natalie Morton was apparently healthy and free from symptoms may not even be true. It has been reported elsewhere that Natalie’s step-father has said that “she had been unwell for “some time” and that the family now believed the vaccine had not caused her death” and that Natalie’s mother had said that “Natalie has been poorly for some time. She had not been to hospital but she was receiving medication and doctors have been involved.” It appears that as well as being ignorant of cases where asymptomatic tumours [note: not necessarily cancerous tumours] have been linked with sudden death and ignorant of the existence of asymptomatic cancer, Halvorsen may also be ignorant of the facts of the case being discussed.
Having written an appalling article with a dreadful headline, gone to the usual suspects JABS and Richard Halvorsen for comment, scaremongered about a vaccine, and generally given a shockingly one-sided and inaccurate view of the HPV vaccine, the Sunday Express have taken the unusual step of making the comment facility unavailable for this article. Perhaps they were worried that their inaccurate, misleading, and distorted version of events would be challenged?
Richard Halvorsen and media outlets such as the Daily Mail, and the Daily Express and Sunday Express are proving to be a menace to public health. With no facility for feedback on the article, a toothless regulator of the press, and no real sanctions to face, it seems that the authors of dangerous nonsense need not fear the consequences of peddling dangerous nonsense. The only people who will suffer will be those who are misled by the people who disseminate such irresponsible and ignorant opinions into refusing potentially life-saving vaccines due to the ill-founded fears fomented in organs such as the Sunday Express.
Edit 9th October 2009
The Sunday Express article that this post is based on has now been deleted. A cached copy is available here.
Edit 10th October 2009
*Dr Diane Harper’s position on Cervarix has now been clarified. Read more here at Bad Science.
Edit 15th October 2009
Proposed Legislation: “ALL VACCINES ARE BANNED” unless they can be scientifically proven to meet these two criteria: FIRST: DO NO HARM and SECOND: ARE BENEFICIAL TO THE RECIPIENT’S HEALTH.
So… only vaccines with zero side-effects (serious or trivial) would be allowed – with no consideration of the risks versus the benefits of vaccination.
Another way to state it is that “given an existing problem, it may be better to do nothing than to do something that risks causing more harm than good.” It reminds the physician and other health care providers that they must consider the possible harm that any intervention might do. It is invoked when debating the use of an intervention that carries an obvious risk of harm but a less certain chance of benefit.