Having played a major role in what Ben Goldacre calls the Media’s MMR hoax, the Daily Fail first went for Andrew Wakefield, calling him “the doctor who sparked a worldwide health scare over the MMR jab”. They then went after, um, their own readers. The Fail called parents who had (partly thanks to the Fail itself) refused to vaccinate their children with MMR morons and middle-class twits. Having perpetuated the MMR scare, the Mail then blamed a lone scientist for beginning the scare and its readers for having fallen for it, taking zero responsibility for their own, significant, role in the whole debacle. That was the Mail’s MMR Hoax. Now they’re going for a new target – the cervical cancer vaccine.
Here’s the story. Here’s what blogger JQH thinks of it. He makes the point that 99.8 per cent of the girls receiving the vaccine suffered no adverse events and refers to the fallacy that correlation implies causation. My take on the Fail story is that, while there were 1300 reported adverse events suffered by girls who had had the vaccine, some of the adverse events are extremely unlikely to be linked in any way, most of the adverse events appear to be mild, some will have been associated with the act of vaccination rather than the vaccine itself, and (finally) that – compared with the risks of cervical cancer – the risks of the vaccine are pretty insignificant.
The Fail article refers to a girl developing anorexia. I wonder how the Fail think that vaccination causes anorexia? This is possibly the best example of post hoc fallacy in the Fail article – because the girl developed anorexia after having the vaccine, a link between the two is implied where, in all probability, none exists. Mild adverse events associated with the vaccination of children would include pain in the arm where the vaccine was given. The Fail article apparently hints at this when claiming that dozens (*) suffered “pain ‘in extremity'”. The wording of the Fail article seems to imply that the pain was extreme, though – whereas I would have thought that ‘pain in extremity’ referred to pain in one of the extremities of the body (i.e., the arm in which the vaccine was given, which would be expected). At the very least, this part of the Fail’s article is ambiguous and potentially misleading.
As to the risks of vaccination against cervical cancer, 1300 reports of adverse events, mostly mild, with some doubt over whether a number of these adverse events are in any way linked to the vaccination have to be weighed against the 700 deaths per year that will be prevented by the vaccine. If the Fail wanted to discuss the merits of the vaccine then they could quite legitimately have queried the cost-benefit of this vaccination, but chose instead to write a dubious feature that overstated health concerns and include a call from anti-vaccinationist Jackie Fletcher for the “Government […] to look at the future of this programme”. Remember – “Most were minor complaints such as rashes, swelling on the injection site, pain or allergic reactions.” Meanwhile, the Fail report that four girls had convulsions, one had a seizure and one had an epileptic fit. Given the number of children being vaccinated, one would expect some to have adverse events unrelated to the vaccine purely by chance. Paul Offit related a story of a child in his office waiting to be vaccinated. The child had a fit before the vaccine could be administered – imagine if the fit had occurred a few minutes later. It would have seemed to be clearly linked to the vaccination. Now that’s something to remember next time you read about an adverse event occurring following administration of a vaccine.
The Daily Mail’s reporting of the UK’s immunisation programme undermines it and it’s surely time something were done about it. JQH recommends “”the Editor and publishers of the Daily Mail [be] prosecuted for endangering public health”. In the absence of a prosecution, it may be worth writing to the Press Complaints Commission here. But first, perhaps we should contact the Editor of the Daily Mail – I think this is the address to write to in order to complain about the inaccuracy of their story: firstname.lastname@example.org; and if the inaccurate elements of the story are not corrected then contacting the PCC is the next step. The first part of the PCC’s code of practice is that: “The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information, including pictures.” Not forgetting that:
A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion once recognised must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and – where appropriate – an apology published. […] The Press, whilst free to be partisan, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.
They’ve perpetuated one vaccine scare, let’s not let them get away with starting another.
*I like jonnyhead’s interpretation of what I shall henceforth refer to as a ‘Journalist’s Dozens’. Jonnyhead gives us this definition: “dozens is tabloid shorthand for ‘a number considerably less than 100 which nevertheless needs to sound big for our purposes'”. I also used a couple of points made on the Bad Science forums by mjrobbins, Elennaro, and Martin Y in putting this post together.