October 10, 2009
By Ben Goldacre
Last month I had a debate at the Royal Institution with Lord Drayson, the science minister, in which he argued that I was too harsh on British science coverage, which was the best in the world. During the event our chairman Simon Mayo pulled out a health front page from the Sunday Express and asked what we thought about it. I said the article might be accurate, but was also likely to be fantasy, and I would urge people to be extremely sceptical about health information on the Sunday Express front page. Drayson thought this was cynical and unfair. He warmly encouraged us to trust this newspaper.
“Jab ‘as deadly as the cancer’,” roared the Sunday Express headline. “Cervical drug expert hits out as new doubts raised over death of teenager,” said the sub-heading, although no such new doubts were raised in the article. We will now break with tradition and reproduce a paragraph from the story. I’d like you to pay attention and perhaps build a list of its claims in your mind. This is a story where every single assertion made on someone else’s behalf is false.
“The cervical cancer vaccine may be riskier and more deadly than the cancer it is designed to prevent, a leading expert who developed the drug has warned. She also claimed the jab would do nothing to reduce the rates of cervical cancer in the UK. Speaking exclusively to the Sunday Express, Dr Diane Harper, who was involved in the clinical trials of the controversial drug Cervarix, said the jab was being ‘overmarketed’ and parents should be properly warned about the potential side effects.”
The story seemed unlikely: Prof Harper is not a known member of the anti-vaccination community, which is vanishingly small. Second, it was in the Sunday Express. Last, it was by specialist health journalist Lucy Johnston, whose previous work includes Doctor’s MMR fears, Exclusive: Experts cast doubt on claim for ‘wonder’ cancer jabs, Children ‘used as guinea pigs for vaccines’, Dangers Of MMR jab ‘covered up’, Teenage girls sue over cancer jab, Jab makers linked to vaccine programme, and many more, including a memorable bad science story, Suicides ‘linked to phone masts’.
So I contacted the professor. I will explain Harper’s position in her own words. They are unambiguous: “I did not say that Cervarix was as deadly as cervical cancer. I did not say that Cervarix could be riskier or more deadly than cervical cancer. I did not say that Cervarix was controversial, I stated that Cervarix is not a ‘controversial drug’. I did not ‘hit out’ – I was contacted by the press for facts. And this was not an exclusive interview.”
Harper did not “develop Cervarix” but she did work on some important trials of Gardasil and also Cervarix. “Gardasil is not a ‘sister vaccine’ as the Express said, it is a different compound. I do not know of the side effects of Cervarix as it is not available in the US.”