Forbes currently has an article up that can at best be described as an ode to the HPV vaccine. Uncritically presenting the view of pharmaceutical industries, the article is so incredibly misleading that we thought we would point out some of its fallacies here.
The writer begins by describing the case of Neal Fowler, not surprisingly the CEO of a pharmaceutical company. Fowler was diagnosed with throat cancer, caused by the HPV virus. Fowler is furious that Gardasil is not being promoted against throat cancer as well, even though there isn’t actually any evidence that proves Gardasil is effective against the throat cancer strain. Since this evidence will take “at least 20 years” to gather, Fowler reasons, why even wait for proof?
“We’ve got this two- or three-decade window where more and more of these patients like myself are going to emerge,” says Fowler. “To me the [vaccine] risk is minimal, and I’d say, why not do that?”
According to Forbes, the only reason we don’t just waive this whole requirement for, you know, evidence that the vaccine actually works is “politics.” Not common sense. Politics. Because “Drug safety, vaccines, antibiotics and reproductive medicine—all have become proxies for the culture war, often tripping up public health in the process. Big Pharma hasn’t helped, with deep p.r. wounds that have made it anathema to both political parties. Nor has the FDA, which has shifted the goalposts on approving new antibiotics enough to scare away many innovators just as resistant bacteria have become a big health problem.”
Yeah. The real problem with the FDA is that they have too many rules to try and ensure that vaccines are actually safe. Who cares about safety?! There are diseases out there! And profits – but Forbes isn’t talking about those. No, what pharmaceutical companies care about is safeguarding your health with vaccines (although they apparently don’t care about the efficiency and safety of those vaccines, so how they are caring about your health is up for interpretation).
Forbes goes on to lament how there is now public distrust of Gardasil, a vaccine they describe has having “an exceptional safety record and effectiveness rate.” No mention of the high incidence of adverse events following vaccination, not just in the U.S. but in other countries as well. No, the distrust of the vaccine is due to fears of promiscuity on the right, and due to fears of corporate power on the left. Apparently Merck made a couple of mistakes by aggressively marketing an earlier drug, Vioxx (again, no mention of their decidedly less-than-ethical marketing of Gardasil itself) and just because of that minor marketing error, people don’t like Gardasil. What’s a poor, helpless pharmaceutical giant to do?!
The article does mention that vaccines, which it characterizes as “one of the great success stories of modern innovation” are considered “somehow unsafe” by the public and increasingly by government officials. Of course, Forbes doesn’t explore any reasons this might be so – oh no! Voters just got this idea out of nowhere, and politicians are just “channeling” it. Nothing summarizes the utter disdain for real health concerns relating to vaccines in this article like the following sentence: “A Thomson Reuters/NPR Health Poll last year found one in four Americans believes there are safety problems with vaccines, which experts say are among the safest medical products ever created.”
The safest medical products ever created! Who these experts are, where they derive their funding, and what evidence-based reasons there may be to question their conclusions are obviously not discussed. Forbes has already established that evidence isn’t needed when it comes to vaccines.
What follows is more on how wonderful vaccines are. Suddenly, vaccines are safe according to unnamed, uncited evidence, even though earlier we didn’t care about evidence at all:
“It’s an insult that people are not looking at the evidence,” says [Otis] Brawley [chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society]. “It’s a tragedy that we could prevent people from dying from cervical and head and neck cancer but our society just can’t bring itself to have an open, rational, scientific discussion about the facts.”
Yes. The facts. Which are never discussed in this article, but never mind that.
To give further legitimacy to the vaccine, Forbes even hauls in the Noble Prize committee, who in 2008 awarded the Nobel Prise in Physiology and Medicine to Harald zur Hausen for the 1976 discovery that HPV causes cervical cancer tumors. The article triumphantly adds, “The Nobel Prize committee noted that HPV might play a role in 5% of human cancers and at least half of people get HPV at some point in their lives.”
While half of people may get HPV at some point in their lives, 90% of those cases will likely clear up on their own. But that, of course, detracts from the fear-mongering the article aims for.
Throughout the article, there is a chorus of pharmaceutical industry workers lamenting that the vaccines are not given to enough people. (I know, it’s shocking that the pharmaceutical industry may want more people buying their product). One researcher comments:
“What always irks me looking at Gardasil is if you look at the target population, it’s just 25% to 30% that are being immunized. So that’s usually not sufficient to really have a substantial impact.” If the vaccine were widely used, she says, it might not only prevent cervical cancers but also some cases of throat cancer, as well as a rare disease in children where warts have to be constantly removed from their throats.
The vaccine might prevent cervical and throat cancers AND a rare disease! Who can be so cruel as to condemn children to multiple surgeries? Again, the fact that there is no data supporting any of these suppositions is discounted.
At the end of the article, data is finally offered. But there are no links and no citations as to where that data comes from. The article also briefly mentions that in America, Pap smears are still most effective against cervical cancer – which begins to explain why the article spends so much time on how the HPV vaccine might be able to fight other cancers. Then it gets into the business of how women in developing countries – where Pap smears are less common – would benefit from the vaccine. Here, of course, the source consulted is Bill Gates’ GAVI Alliance – which works closely with Merck and GlaxoSmithKline. Unsurprisingly, the author of the articles has written other articles lauding Bill Gates’ vaccine efforts as well.
It is discouraging to see a reputable magazine print such a completely fact-free article that exploits people’s fears, especially in order to make a wealthy and powerful industry even more wealthy and powerful. But that seems to be the way it is.